Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009

House of Commons

Tuesday 17 March 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Electoral Registration

The Government have committed to ensuring that the electoral register is both comprehensive and accurate and that we do everything possible to tackle electoral fraud. We have introduced new and strengthened penalties for electoral fraud for that reason and new requirements for personal identification for voting. Also for that reason, the Electoral Administration Act 2006 imposed a new duty on electoral registration officers to take all necessary steps to ensure that there is a comprehensive register. That has helped to increase voter registration for parliamentary elections by nearly 800,000 over the past three years. We recognise, however, that there is more that can be done in all those areas, and we will do it.

I am grateful to the Minister, but is he aware that the integrity of the electoral register can be maintained only if the people who are eligible to be on it are the only ones who can register? What can be done to prevent people who do not have indefinite leave to remain in this country from registering and voting? Does he believe that it is unsatisfactory for someone facing a deportation order not only to have registered to vote but to have actually voted in the 2005 general election in Chelmsford? When the electoral registration officer took the matter up with the Home Office—

If the hon. Gentleman has individual circumstances in his constituency that he wants me to follow up, of course I shall do so. His general point about the integrity of the register is absolutely right. We have already taken many measures to deal with that, and we are going to take further measures. That is why, for example, we are going to bring in a process of individual voter registration beginning next year.

Will the Minister look at how the security of the postal voting system might be improved? Before each election, I am contacted by electors who say that they have not received the postal ballot paper that they have applied for, and when I ask the electoral registration office to issue them with a duplicate, it says that it is not allowed to do that because its records show that the ballot paper has been dispatched. That elector loses their vote, and nobody knows what has happened to it. Similarly, when completed ballot papers are returned to the electoral registration office, they are very often not received. Is there some way in which the security of that process can be tightened?

Again, I am very happy to look at any individual circumstances that the hon. Lady may want to bring to my attention. Of course, we are constantly looking at how we can improve the procedures. That is why we have brought forward measures in the past few years and will continue to bring them forward as needed. If she wants to write to me or come and see me about individual circumstances, I am always happy for her to do so.

Opposition Members rightly mention election fraud, which is serious. Does my right hon. Friend agree that an equally serious issue is the 3.5 million UK residents who are missing from the register? Measures introduced in Northern Ireland some years ago resulted in 13 local authorities there having the lowest registration rates in the whole country. What lessons has he drawn from the Northern Ireland experience?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of maintaining the comprehensive nature of the register as well as its integrity. Those two things are fundamental principles for the electoral registration system in this country, which is the foundation of our democracy. Of course it is right that we must ensure that the integrity of the system is upheld and enhanced at every moment, but we must also ensure that the register is kept as comprehensive as possible. That is why we are bringing in new measures in the Political Parties and Elections Bill, which is currently going to the other place. It is why we brought in measures that have already driven up registration by hundreds of thousands of votes in the past three years and why I can assure my hon. Friend that the lessons of Northern Ireland will be taken on board. We will continue to do everything possible to ensure that the register is comprehensive.

Perhaps the Minister will agree that the single most effective measure to prevent fraud is individual registration. In that context, does he understand that many of us believe that the 2015 introduction date is too leisurely and should be brought forward?

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that individual registration is very important in ensuring the integrity of the register. That is why we are bringing it forward. However, I hope he will agree with me that it is very important that the introduction of that historic shift in how voters are registered in this country is not botched. By “botched” I mean large numbers of voters falling off the register who would otherwise be eligible to vote. I hope he agrees that that would be a blow to our democracy. We must ensure that the comprehensive nature of the register is maintained as we move with all due speed and caution towards a system of individual voter registration. We have discussed the matter at length during the progress of the Political Parties and Elections Bill through this House, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be well aware of the reasons why the 2015 introduction date has been chosen.

Surely the lesson from Northern Ireland is that, when new security measures were introduced, not only did numbers on the electoral register fall but they stayed low, stubbornly resistant to increase. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that, before any steps are taken, we need to ensure that we have a comprehensive and robust system of electoral registration?

I do agree, and my hon. Friend is right. We need to ensure that the register is comprehensive before we can move to a system, which, all the evidence suggests, could lead to many voters who are otherwise eligible to vote not being able to do so because they are not on the register. We must proceed with two principles firmly in mind and locked together: the comprehensive nature of the electoral registration system and its integrity.

I agreed with everything the Minister said until his last point. Of course comprehensiveness of the register is vital, but electoral fraud undermines democracy. We have called for individual voter registration and all the other measures for more than five years. If the Minister now recognises that that is necessary, he must also recognise that it is urgent. Between now and 2015, at least 13 important sets of elections will take place without individual registration and the other measures that he mentioned. If he genuinely wants to protect the integrity of the ballot, will he convert his new-found enthusiasm for the principle into action? He should give the reforms the urgency that they deserve: 2015 is too late.

I have great respect for the hon. Lady, and many of the points that she makes are true. However, I caution her against undue haste.

If any of us proceed with undue haste, the matter could be botched and many voters, who are eligible to vote, will fall off the register because of the problems. Let us consider, for example, people who are functionally illiterate—an estimate suggests that one in five of the population are functionally illiterate. I very much hope that Conservative Members are not proposing a deliberate policy of disfranchising such marginal and vulnerable voters—[Interruption.] I think they are suggesting they are not, in which case I hope they agree that it is necessary to proceed with caution to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is registered and can do so. That is important.

The hon. Lady suggests that proceeding to individual registration is the only way of tackling fraud. It is an important method, but not the only one. We have produced many measures, and studies by the Electoral Commission suggest that, certainly in the past three or four years, incidence of fraud is declining, not increasing.

Burglary (Sentencing)

2. What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of first-time offenders found guilty of burglary offences who are given custodial sentences; and if he will make a statement. (263747)

According to figures recorded on the police national computer in 2007, 22 per cent. of first-time offenders convicted of burglary with no previous convictions were sentenced to immediate or suspended custody. With the Government’s active encouragement and the courts’ active involvement, household burglary has decreased by 55 per cent. since 1997.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, although I think that burglary has increased more recently. When I raised the matter on 3 February, the Justice Secretary said that the Lord Chief Justice had issued

“very strong guidance to sentencers on burglary”.—[Official Report, 3 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 697.]

He also said that there would be a “toughening up” of sentencing policy. However, the key points in that sentencing document include the following:

“Previous convictions and the record of an offender are of more significance than in the case of some other crimes.”

What exactly does that mean? It seems like a weakening rather than a strengthening of sentencing policy.

I think I have made it clear that the Government and the judiciary feel strongly that we need to strengthen and encourage custodial sentences for burglars when appropriate. Under the previous Conservative Government, the average sentence for burglary was 15.8 months, whereas the average sentence now is 16.7 months. Indeed, 85 per cent. of those who commit a third burglary are now sentenced to custody.

For first-time offenders who are found guilty of burglary and get a custodial sentence, a key component of ensuring that they do not, on their release, commit burglary again is their educational skills—illiteracy among prisoners is high. To stop first-time offenders becoming second-time offenders, what are my right hon. Friend and the Government doing about education in the Prison Service, which is vital?

My hon. Friend is right to say that improving literacy and numeracy and the opportunities to learn new skills and gain employment are key to preventing reoffending. We have dramatically increased the amount of investment and the number of hours available both in young offender institutions and adult prisons to deal with education for literacy and numeracy. There is self-evidently more that can be done, but I give my hon. Friend an assurance that we will continue to do that, because those things are key to preventing reoffending.

Instances of burglary tend to increase in times of recession. Given that prison places are at a premium and given the depth of the recession that we are going through, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that those who engage in criminal activity for the first time face extreme sanction and the knowledge that they should not carry out such actions, and that they do not repeat those offences?

As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), at the moment 22 per cent. of offenders convicted of burglary with no previous convictions are sentenced to immediate or suspended custody. Whatever response the courts make, I am clear that we need to ensure sufficient prison places for those for whom custody is an option in the courts. That is why we will build an additional 3,500 or so prison places in England and Wales this year alone and why we have an ambitious programme to get to 96,000 places by 2013-14. We currently have some headroom in the prison system, but we want to ensure that there will always be places for people who are sentenced. That is why we have the ambitious building programme that we do.

Has the Minister found some new evidence that short periods in prison make offenders less likely to commit further burglaries? If he has not, will he ensure that the courts have available to them community payback schemes, restorative justice and the means to address the original causes of offending, such as drug addiction, rather than spending lots of money on prison sentences that do not work?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. A key issue is what we do with people who are sentenced to less than 12 months in prison, because going through the revolving door of prison gates is not conducive to preventing reoffending. We have a menu of options. Ultimately, it is for the courts to decide. Custody will be an option, depending sometimes on an individual’s persistence with burglary or another offence, but I want to see what works. On many occasions, a drug rehabilitation order or a strong and intensive community sentence will be just as important as a short custodial sentence in helping to prevent reoffending.

What is the point of the courts sending burglars to prison, as the Lord Chief Justice recommended in January, if the Government let them out? Some 4,527 burglars have been let out under the Government’s hopeless and benighted early release from custody scheme. Why do the Government not do something useful for once? Most burglars are drug addicts, stealing to fund their addiction. Why do the Government not get them off drugs, either in prison or outside, and do the public a good turn?

The hon. and learned Gentleman will know, because he takes these matters seriously, that a renewed and revised drugs strategy for the next three years will shortly be produced for the National Offender Management Service. He knows that we intend to terminate the end of custody licence scheme as soon as practicable and that we are working towards that end. Unlike the Opposition, who released 3,500 prisoners in a single day, we are committed to ensuring that there are sufficient prison places, that we tackle the causes of crime and that we support both strong community sentences and effective activity in prison. That is what we are doing and I am sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not recognise it.


3. What recent representations he has received on his Department’s plans to exclude juries from some inquests. (263748)

On Second Reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill, I told the House that the Government were open to amendments and suggestions about the proposals. Many hon. Members from all parts of the House have responded to that invitation. In consequence, I am this afternoon tabling amendments fundamentally to recast the proposals. First, the criteria for the Secretary of State’s certification will be significantly tightened. Secondly, the Secretary of State’s certificate will trigger consideration by a High Court judge sitting as a coroner. It will then be for the judge, not the Secretary of State, to decide whether it is necessary to hold an inquest without a jury or whether special measures with a jury would be adequate to protect the sensitive information concerned. There would in any event be a right of appeal to the Court of Appeal.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for the mini-announcement that he has made. [Interruption.] No, I am thanking him for it—it is good. He will know that his original proposals caused a great deal of disquiet, so I am grateful that he has tabled those further proposals. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friends will want to look at those amendments in detail as the Bill is discussed next week. Does the Secretary of State think that the amendment he will table reflects the concerns that people had about how removing the jury could effectively remove the reason for an inquest in the first place?

I in turn am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his response. I might be old-fashioned, but I take the view that the place to make announcements is in the House of Commons—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] One does one’s best in that regard.

Of course I understand that the whole House—not least those on the Opposition Front Bench and the Liberal Democrat spokespeople—will wish to reflect on the detailed wording of the amendment, but I hope and believe that it will meet the concerns that have been expressed. First, there was concern that the criteria for the initial certification by the Secretary of State were too wide. The criteria have been narrowed, and it will no longer be sufficient for the Secretary of State to have the opinion that a non-jury inquest is required; they will need to decide themselves that it is necessary.

Secondly—this is crucial, as this objection was raised on both sides of the House—the decision about whether to hold a non-jury inquest will not be a matter for the Secretary of State. It will be a matter for the High Court coroner, and I am sure that he or she will, in every case, look first at whether special measures of the kind adopted in the criminal courts—including the gisting of secret information to a jury—would be adequate. It is my hope that, in most cases, they will.

Would I be right in thinking the special measures will include the use of public interest immunity certificates? The last time this matter was discussed on the Floor of the House, the Justice Secretary said that this would not work because the judge might decline to make the order. However, that would have been appealable, as is this proposal. Am I right in thinking that these measures will include PII certificates?

The difficulty with using just public interest immunity certificates is that, when a PIIC is refused in a criminal case, the prosecution can, in extremis, withdraw the prosecution, but there is no possibility of withdrawing an inquest. That is because an inquest is triggered by a death, not by a discretionary criminal charge. That is why we have come up with this proposal. There will be circumstances—although I think they will be very few and far between—in which the learned judge might decide that the only way the protected information can be the subject of a proper judgment by the court while remaining protected will be for the judge to sit alone without a jury. I hope, however, that in many cases, the judge will come to the view that it will be adequate for the protected information to be gisted or summarised in a safe way to the jury.

Any movement on this issue by the Government is to be welcomed, although Opposition Members will have to study the details of the proposals. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he now accepts the point of principle that there is a difference between removing a jury and holding proceedings behind closed doors? Does he acknowledge that those are different issues that need to be decided separately? Will he also confirm that one possible special measure would be to security-vet the jury?

Special measures involving a jury and the removal of a jury are part of a continuum. The most extreme measure is for a judge to sit alone, and the decision to do so will have been reached in order to protect information that cannot be made public. A judge could decide to protect that information in other ways, however, and it would be for the judge to come to a view on that. I doubt very much that they would form the view that the vetting of the jury would be adequate, but they might do so.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that he has consistently argued his case in favour of secret inquests on the basis that two inquests had to be halted because the existing safeguards were inadequate? That is the argument that he put to the House on 26 January on Second Reading. Is he aware, however, that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has now written to the Committee to explain that one of those inquests—that into the death of Terry Nicholas—was resumed on 6 January? Is that not quite staggering? Surely his argument must now fall apart, because he gave the House inaccurate information.

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the second inquest was resumed on 6 February, which is a non-trivial fact because it is after I made my Second Reading speech rather than before. This is what the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has just told me, and if she is wrong she will be given career advice at the end of Question Time and I will make a grovelling apology. In any event, we have always made it clear that the circumstances in which a non-jury inquest might be necessary would be few and far between. I hope that the House will regard it as a good thing rather than a bad thing that, as a result of further examination of the original circumstances that led to the judgment that two of the inquests had to be held without a jury, we have now got the number down to one. Surely that is a good thing.

Restorative Justice (Lancashire)

Lancashire police are among the best performing in the country and one of the leading forces nationally in developing restorative practices. Owing to the successes experienced in areas such as Lancashire, the Government want to see an extension of restorative programmes. To that end, we are currently working with interested groups, including the Restorative Justice Consortium, to develop a national victim-focused restorative justice strategy for adult offenders.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s support for the pioneering developments in Lancashire, which include a peer pilot project for younger people. Will the Minister tell me whether the Government have made an assessment of the impact of this project, particularly on reducing antisocial behaviour among young people, and will he tell me how best practice from the project can be disseminated to benefit my constituents in Blackpool?

Peer panels, to which my hon. Friend refers, are a Nacro-led project. An independent evaluation of them is now in its second year of a three-year pilot, so it is too early to judge the success. Having said that, there has been a lot of positive feedback and we have seen an increasing number of referrals from the police, youth offending teams, schools, primary care trusts and so forth. Any lessons we identify from the pilot will be fed back into the centre further to inform the development of the restorative justice strategy.

Departmental Information Sharing

5. What the Government’s policy is on increased information sharing across Departments; and if he will make a statement. (263750)

Sharing information across Government Departments in a safe and proportionate way, with proper safeguards in place, is vital to the delivery of modern public services. That has always been Government policy.

Many of my constituents are very concerned about clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, and I greatly fear that, whatever reassurance the Minister can give, unless there is some absolutely categorical mechanism for protecting information, people will not be reassured that their details are safe.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope it will give his constituents some reassurance to know that we have withdrawn the clauses that they are worried about.

On information sharing, we have today received the shocking report from the Healthcare Commission on the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. In the course of that report, the commission says:

“We thought that information from the coroner would be useful for the investigation. We were disappointed that he declined to provide us with any information about the number or nature of inquests involving the trust.”

May I ask my right hon. Friend to make some inquiries into why that was so?

I can of course give my hon. Friend that reassurance, and I will write to him as well.

We all greatly welcome the withdrawal of clause 152 from the Coroners and Justice Bill, but can the Minister explain why it is that, although a moment ago the Secretary of State made great play of the fact that he had made the first announcement on jury-free coroners trials to the House, the announcement about the withdrawal of clause 152 was made not to the Bill Committee, of which I am a member, but to the Sunday newspaper The Observer two days earlier?

I think that if the hon. Gentleman looks at the Hansard record of the Committee stage, he will find that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), made it absolutely clear that we would revisit the clauses concerned. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the principle of parliamentary accountability remains inviolate.

Although I welcome the Secretary of State’s belated U-turn on proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill for unlimited data sharing across Government, does he accept that the appalling case of John Worboys, who was reported to the police by 85 different women, demonstrates that the Government’s approach, involving relying robotically on databases that are badly run, in fact exposes the public to greater risk?

Let me address several of the points of contention raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman. First, what he regards as a U-turn, we regard as a proper process of parliamentary scrutiny. What should happen with legislation is that the Government bring it to Parliament, it is then scrutinised, and when, on occasion, the Opposition make a reasonable point, we respond appropriately. In the case cited by the hon. and learned Gentleman, it became clear that the powers were drawn too widely. We have therefore withdrawn them, will redraft them, and propose to introduce data-sharing powers in future, precisely because we believe that they can be in the public interest if they are implemented safely and if they are proportionate.

We do not implement such measures “robotically”, as the hon. and learned Gentleman claims. We bring them into play so that they can serve the public, and there are many examples of data sharing which do just that.

The Minister is flannelling his way around the Government’s U-turn, seeking to conceal the fact that he has given no answer to the second part of my question. Last week we learned that £41 million had been squandered on the Department’s IT database, which was designed to enable police, prisons and the probation service to monitor dangerous criminals. Now it has been abandoned. The National Audit Office has referred to

“inadequate oversight by senior management”


“no evidence of Ministerial involvement beyond them receiving standard summarised briefings”.

Presumably the Minister remembers those.

Today we learned that parole decisions on dangerous prisoners were being undermined because of basic failures to provide the timely and complete information required. Does the Minister accept that no database can compensate for the basic human errors that are resulting from the Government’s very poor management and serial incompetence when it comes to data?

The hon. and learned Gentleman really ought to have a look at his questions again before he asks them. He keeps returning to the same points. [Hon. Members: “Robotic!”] Yes—in a robotic way.

The fundamental point remains that the creation of databases can be in the public interest. It is never easy to get these things right, but I think that if the hon. and learned Gentleman looks at the record of the private sector, just as much as that of the public sector, it will be clear to him that we all have a great deal to learn. We are learning those lessons, however. We have put measures in place constantly to improve data security. I entirely accept that we have some way to go, but the fact that there have been deeply regrettable breaches of data security is no reason for us to turn our back on all the public good that can be done by the creation of databases in the public interest, subject to the principles of data protection.

Alternatives to Prosecution

6. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the criteria for dealing with offences by means other than prosecution. (263751)

Policing in England and Wales has always depended for its effectiveness on policing by consent, which in turn has required a high level of discretion within relevant guidelines—not least in regard to arrest, charge and other disposals—to be exercised by police officers and prosecutors. Out-of-court-disposals are, therefore, as old as policing itself. What we have done is ensure that their operation is transparent, consistent and proportionate. While, under us, crime has been falling year by year—by 39 per cent. over 12 years—the level of convictions by courts has been broadly stable.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but the problem is that if, for example, someone parks their car in the wrong place for 10 minutes, they can get a fixed penalty of £120. Does the Secretary of State not understand that my constituents, along with people all over the country, believe that theft and criminal damage, which are often dealt with by a fixed penalty of £80, are far more serious offences? What will he do to restore public confidence that the punishment fits the crime?

I accept the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s question; parking offences are a nuisance, but the two other offences he mentions are, of course, more serious. As I have said to his party colleague, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), I am looking at whether penalty notices for disorder involving dishonesty—the only one directly is that of shop theft—should continue to be subject to PNDs or should be subject to normal court process.

Fifty-seven per cent. of serious offenders in Dyfed-Powys escape prosecution and are cautioned. That is compared with an all-Wales average of 36 per cent. and a rate of 22 per cent. in the North Wales police area, which is the local police force of one of the Department’s Ministers. When figures vary so much across police force areas, are they audited by the Department to see whether they comply with any guidelines that are issued for the cautioning of serious offenders?

I have sat in this House for almost 30 years listening to lectures from Liberals and then Liberal Democrats about localism and the need for local areas to decide things for themselves without some central state direction, but now the hon. Gentleman wants a national dirigiste formula to be applied to Dyfed-Powys in the same way as anywhere else, without any local discretion whatever. He therefore needs to think again about the philosophical base of the party that he claims to represent. The other point I would make to him is this: overall, the reoffending rate in respect of reprimands stands at 28 per cent., which is significantly lower than that for those who receive a disposal order or those referred to custody. Reprimands can therefore play an important part in ensuring that offending is nipped in the bud, provided, of course, that the offence is not sufficiently serious to warrant a prosecution straight away.

Child Pornography

7. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of sentences imposed on those convicted of child pornography offences. (263752)

In 2000, we increased the maximum sentences available for production and distribution of indecent images of children from three years to 10 years, and for the simple possession of indecent images from six months to five years’ imprisonment. The average custodial sentence imposed by the courts has increased by several percentage points since the new maximum penalties were introduced.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that not only are images based on real children unacceptable, but so too are images that people use for these purposes that they have generated either from their own imagination or electronically? Will she give the House an assurance that her Department will not be going down the route of believing that those sorts of images are a matter for the individual concerned and their own conscience?

I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend that assurance. He will have been as surprised as I was when in the Coroners and Justice Public Bill Committee the Opposition spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), said that he felt that our clause was, perhaps, over-egging the pudding. I do not for one minute think that taking action against these people in this way is over-egging the pudding. We need to protect our children.

My own discussions with the police dealing with the child sex offender area has confirmed that many of the sentences are clearly inadequate, especially compared with what Parliament intended. Why have Ministers consistently declined to add the child pornographic offences to sections 35 or 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, thus allowing appeals against lenient sentences?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a great deal of interest in this area and has worked very hard to try to protect children. We have decided to go down the road that we have because we want to work with the industry, giving it the opportunity to regulate itself. Of course, if that does not work, we are prepared to legislate, if necessary, to ensure that children are properly protected.

Burial Ground Memorials

10. What assessment he has made of levels of implementation of his Department’s guidance on managing the safety of burial ground memorials. (263755)

I understand that those involved—undertakers, local authorities, crematorium managers and the like—have disseminated the recent guidance to burial ground managers. It is a little too early to make a detailed assessment of the implementation, but practitioner representatives have agreed to provide regular feedback and we will be undertaking a sampling survey of burial grounds within the next 12 months.

The new guidelines are a long overdue improvement in health and safety in graveyards, but the January newsletter of the local authority Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management describes them as creating a “dilemma” for local authorities and having “no logical basis”. The Minister has issued excellent guidance to sort out this scandal of health and safety zealousness in graveyards, but the local authorities are snubbing her and the Health and Safety Executive. What is going to be done to pull them into order and get rid of the nonsense of staking graves and laying down graves all across Britain?

It is important that the House recognises the zealousness with which my hon. Friend has pursued this issue, and it is very much down to his campaigning that the guidance has been introduced—I congratulate him on that. My officials have discussed this with the crematorium managers organisations, and they have assured us that they welcome the guidance in principle and that they will participate in arrangements to monitor its implementation. I take this opportunity to say again that where there is no need for a memorial to have been staked or laid down, we would expect the cemetery operator responsible to consider restoring it. The guidance recommends that neither mechanical pressure testing nor stakes should be used routinely, and although there may be the occasional case where careful and sensitive use of such equipment might be appropriate, it is clear that it is not appropriate in the vast majority of cases. We will continue to pursue that policy and encourage local authorities to do so too.

National Offender Management Service

11. What recent representations he has received on the performance of the National Offender Management Service. (263756)

The National Offender Management Service publishes its key targets each year and, from time to time, representations are received about a range of aspects of NOMS performance. I have regular meetings with interested parties and discuss a range of issues relating to NOMS regularly.

Last week’s National Audit Office report on C-NOMIS excoriated senior NOMS management for an information and communications technology project whose lifetime costs have tripled to £700 million in just three years. I exculpate the Minister, who is a very able man of great integrity, but what should be done about the lamentable failures of that ill-conceived, incoherent and incompetent organisation? Perhaps the guilty parties in EDS, Syscon and NOMS could be locked up for egregious negligence as a pilot group in one of the Minister’s fabled titan prisons—if there is one big enough.

I take it from that that my hon. Friend has some concerns about how the project was managed. He mentioned a figure of £700 million. On assuming this office, I took steps to review the C-NOMIS project and to put a moratorium on it when the costs were £155 million, in order to avoid the £700 million bill that I would have expected to receive had the project continued under the proposals at the time. There were difficulties in the project, but we have put it back on track. We have revised the costings, the project will be completed by July next year, at the latest, and thanks to the actions we took it will cost significantly less than was projected in the first place. I take my hon. Friend’s point and I recognise the serious failings that the NAO drew to our attention.

HMP Wymott

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but concerns remain. Has the governor still got control over Wymott? Who is running the prison? We have seen an increase in prisoner numbers and a reduction in prison officer numbers, so the ratio has changed, and my deep concern is that that is leading to the protests. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that the governor has control and to put in more prison officers as the prison population continues to grow?

I have full confidence in the governor. The incident is, obviously, to be regretted, but steps have been taken to improve security at the site, including work on the roof to ensure that access will not be available again. One of the prisoners involved in the incident has been moved, and the other two will shortly be subject to potential disciplinary action. There is positive activity at Wymott—a new prisoner wing for 70 prisoners opened in September 2008—and I have visited it and Garth, which is next door, in the past year. I met prison officers and the governing team, and we have an opportunity to continue to build on the success of the prison. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that we are doing all that we can to ensure that the prison continues to make progress.

Topical Questions

The House will wish to be aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has today announced strengthened regulation of the bailiff industry, including an online register and better criminal record checks. At the same time, we will not extend bailiffs’ powers of entry or the use of force, or commence charging order reforms.

On the issue of my hon. Friend and her career, may I make it clear that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) was correct and I was wrong. I apologise to the House. By way of mitigation on behalf of my hon. Friend, I should say that Ministry of Justice officials and Ministers were not aware of the decision of the coroner of 6 January until 19 February, which was after Second Reading. I ask for that to be taken into consideration.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the honesty and probity of our legal services are very important for the future of the financial, legal and other services that we will continue to sell abroad? Does he share my concern and that of the Public Administration Committee that many of the big law firms are deeply involved in lobbying? If lobbying and the law become intertwined, we are in danger of experiencing the same problems as we had in accountancy, for example with Enron, when the two responsibilities of management consultants and accountants were merged and disaster ensued. There are some real problems with people who come here as lawyers but who are actually lobbyists, and something should be done.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but this is the first time that this particular issue has been raised with me. Of course I will follow up the specific case that he has in mind, but I should also say that this and the other place agreed to establish the Legal Services Board, which now has a tough chairman in Mr. David Edmonds, to ensure the more effective regulation of the legal profession, including cases in which alternative business models are adopted.

T3. I thank the Minister for allowing a free vote on the issue of the keeping of candidates’ addresses confidential, if they so wish, at election time. I also thank him for the excellent assistance that I received from his officials in making it possible to draft such a satisfactory clause, which has now gone to the other place. Given that this House has expressed its view—in a free vote by every party, apart from the Liberal Democrats—does he agree that it would be bizarre if the unelected House were to try to interfere with the clause? Can he give any indication of the attitude the Government will take in the other place on the fulfilment of the wishes of this House? If the matter comes back here, will he guarantee that we will have enough time for a full debate on the subject? (263774)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his graciousness, particularly towards the officials. They are not often mentioned in this House, and when they are it is not always complimentary, but they do a fantastic job and so I am extremely grateful to him for those gracious words.

On the matter of substance, we took the view very seriously that the subject was a matter for this House, and hence there was a free vote. We took a great deal of trouble to ensure that the measure came to this House first, because we thought that it was proper for those who were elected to make a decision on their behaviour during elections and on what information they should make available. I am quite sure that those in the other place will take due account of that and behave appropriately. Of course, we will have to see what they do. When we have seen what they have done, we will make a decision about what will happen when the measure comes back here.

T2. Concern about the number of adults with learning difficulties who remain in prison continues to be very strong. Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at the proceedings of the Westminster Hall debate on adults with learning difficulties that took place a couple of weeks back? In particular, will he look at the comments made by our hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about the number of adults in the system who do not get the right sort of advice or assistance, particularly when they are trying to go forward for parole? The issue is important and it is one on which it would be useful to hear of some proactivity from the Department. (263773)

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I shall certainly look at the debate that took place several weeks ago in Westminster Hall. As it happens, we have also been well engaged with the Prison Reform Trust on this issue. I attended the launch of the “No One Knows” programme last November with the director general of the National Offender Management Service to look at a range of issues to do with how we can support people with learning difficulties. As my hon. Friend will know, a number of individuals have found themselves in prison whose learning difficulties are contributing to their having a much more difficult time there than would otherwise be the case. It is important that we look at the recommendations. As we said at the conference in November, we welcome the recommendations and will look at how we can address them in a serious and practical way.

T4. The Minister will be aware of concerns caused among local communities by ClearSprings’s plans to house offenders on early release in residential areas. Given that ClearSprings has already had to back off from Basildon council once over a row about inadequate consultation, will the Department revise its contract with ClearSprings to ensure that local councils and residents are properly consulted as soon as ClearSprings starts looking in an area? (263775)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his views. He will know that, of the ClearSprings properties across the country, only about 6 per cent. have caused difficulties once operational. We will shortly re-tender for the contract. I am also in discussions with the Local Government Association to decide on a protocol on the question of consultation, which the LGA has almost agreed on a cross-party basis. It is important that probation, police and local councils are consulted on these matters, but the hon. Gentleman should remember that properties are very often the private homes of individuals who are sometimes yet to be convicted, on bail following offences, or returning from prison to the community for the first time. Those homes are private property, so there is an element of discretion around the issues.

T5. Tomorrow, the Political Parties and Elections Bill goes into the House of Lords, where Lord Campbell-Savours will table my amendments, which were backed in this house by 216 MPs but were not reached for procedural reasons. May I ask my friend the Minister why the Government will not table their own amendments to make it unlawful for tax exiles to bankroll UK political parties? (263776)

I have had some private discussions with my hon. Friend, to which he has given a wider audience. As I have explained to him, I think that his intention is shared across the House. However, his proposals would not have the consequences that he seeks. Moreover, there is quite an issue of principle here: it would be eccentric, to say the least, if the eligibility rules governing voting and receiving money from permissible donors, as well as standing for and taking up a seat in a Parliament, were less stringent than those governing giving money to a political party. I think that there needs to be consistency on this, and that is why we need a thorough examination of all these issues of residence and citizenship as qualifications for taking part in our democratic process.

T9. Earlier today, I had a meeting with representatives of the Federation of Small Businesses. They are very worried about the under-reporting of crime and say that, if the crimes that are not reported by business were taken into account, business crime would account for a third of all crime. They told me that one reason for businesses not reporting crime is that they are not convinced that any action will be taken, and that they believe that sentences are very lenient even when it is. What reassurances can Ministers give that the Government are really serious about tackling business crime? (263780)

Although I am in contact with the national Federation of Small Businesses and have great contact with small businesses locally, that representation has not been made to me before. We have increased the number of police officers over the past dozen years, and there has been an even greater increase in the numbers of support staff for the police. We have improved their systems and, as the Liberals are constantly complaining, we have increased the prison population and prison capacity by a third. As a result, the courts can hand out much tougher sentences for people convicted of crimes, including business crime. Once again, the Liberals need to work out what they want. They need to ensure that hon. Members on their Front Bench stop asking us to cut the prison population when those on their Back Benches are calling for an increase in the prison population—which is what we have provided.

T6. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is giving full and urgent consideration to new information in favour of Michael Shields? Does he recognise the strength of support for Michael, in Liverpool and across the country? (263777)

I do indeed recognise the strength of that support. If I may, I should like to commend the way that my hon. Friend has represented the interests of her constituent and his family. I can answer the first part of her question by saying that, yes, we are giving this matter more consideration—quite appropriately—than I have ever given to any other case of this kind in my roles as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and now Justice Secretary. As she will be aware, I have asked the Merseyside police urgently to conduct further investigations and interviews of further witnesses so that we can come to a view in the light of the criteria set down by the Court of Appeal.

Norfolk is one of eight areas that have piloted the youth restorative disposal scheme. Will the Minister assure the House that the departmental cuts of £900 million over the next two years will not affect those programmes?

I am happy to look in detail at what the hon. Gentleman says, as will the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson). However, the hon. Gentleman may be aware that I visited Norfolk 10 days ago to open the new headquarters of the Norfolk probation service. I was able greatly to commend the work of Norfolk’s police, probation service, courts and local authorities in working together to get crime down. They have made streets and communities much safer, and we are determined to ensure that that work continues.

T7. We have been waiting for more than 150 years to put the civil service on a proper constitutional footing. The Prime Minister announced that that was to be the unfinished constitutional business that the Government would complete, so will my right hon. Friend confirm that it will be this Government in this Session who will complete it? (263778)

I am very glad to hear that the hon. Lady endorses what my hon. Friend has said. Subject to any unanticipated glitches, it remains my intention that the necessary Bill will be brought forward, and it is currently in the final stages of drafting. The idea is that it will be a carry-over Bill that will be brought forward in the spring and then, if necessary, carried over into the next Session.

What progress has been made in ensuring that regional electoral returning officers can make sure that constituency returning officers obey and implement the law to prevent electoral fraud, because they have sometimes been found wanting?

Of course, we are always looking at how to improve the ways that electoral fraud is tackled, and electoral registration officers have a valuable role to play. We are looking at recommendations by the Electoral Commission in this area; and of course, we will introduce any proposals as soon as they are ready.

T8. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the consultation period on the House of Lords decision on pleural plaques has long passed, and is it not time that we had a result? Will he not consider ensuring that pleural plaques sufferers are looked after, that that decision by the House of Lords is overthrown and that those people will at last receive justice? (263779)

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the consultation period has now finished, and we are now actively considering—indeed, I attended a meeting this morning—the next steps in that respect. Of course, I understand the concerns that he expresses on behalf of his constituents.

Following the conviction last week of my constituent, John Worboys, for a series of very serious offences against women who put themselves under his responsibility, trusting that he would behave, will the Home Secretary assure us that he will have conversations with the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Home Office, so that where people have been arrested on suspicion of very serious offences, none the less and without infringing their liberties that information is not lost when similar offences are clearly being repeated in the same area or elsewhere?

I noticed the hon. Gentleman’s slip of the tongue; I am no longer Home Secretary. I will certainly ensure that what he says is passed on to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and taken into account. Of course, there is a wider issue of similar fact evidence, and one of the issues that we pursued—I do not remember getting a huge amount of help from the Liberal Democrats—was to ensure that it was easier to introduce such evidence in criminal prosecutions. I think that we were told at the time by the Liberal Democrats that that would be the end of civilisation and human rights. Yet again, they need to sort themselves out; they say one thing locally and another thing nationally.

Bill Presented

Protection of Shareholders Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. William Cash, supported by Mr. Frank Field, presented a Bill to make provision for each public company to establish a shareholders’ committee; to make provision about the membership, functions and operation of the committee; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June, and to be printed (Bill 76).

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Healthcare Commission has today produced a report about Stafford hospital that is very damning about standards of care there. Although the report was embargoed until tomorrow, all the reporting is happening today, which shows how widespread the interest in the subject is and its seriousness. Have you received any intimation yet that the Secretary of State for Health will come to the House to make an oral statement about the situation at the hospital?

It is a very worrying time for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. It is not a matter for the Chair, as he might understand, but the Secretary of State concerned will have heard his comments today in the Chamber.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. My constituents in Stone are also gravely affected by the Healthcare Commission report. Do you not agree that it is right that the Secretary of State should come to the House? I tabled a question asking him whether he will come to the House to make a statement and to explain the situation, in view of the fact that the Healthcare Commission has said that the hospital has been very badly let down and that there have been appalling standards in the hospital?

I have a hospital in my constituency, which, of course, is devolved now, but I would be very worried indeed if such a report came about on that hospital. Thank God, that has not happened. The hon. Gentleman will understand my position. I can only say that the Secretary of State will have heard his words and those of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney).

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should say that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) is aware that I have sought to raise this point of order on behalf of a number of Members, and in the long-term interests of all of us in the House.

Mr. Speaker, you will be aware that you and successive Speakers have underlined the fact that MPs who take up local casework and local issues outside their constituencies break a very clear convention by which the House operates, but the Conservative party appears to be trying to get round the convention by appointing so-called shadow Ministers for groups of constituencies that they do not represent, on the basis that that somehow legitimises what they are doing. For example, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford, operating as the shadow of the fictional Minister for Cornwall, is as a matter of course taking up local casework. I can supply your office with numerous examples. For instance, this month, while sorting out a local problem for a local arts organisation, I discovered that the shadow of the fictional Minister had also presumed to act on its behalf. In every case, the activity undertaken by him as the shadow of the imaginary Minister for Cornwall mirrors work of local MPs and is clearly done for party political purposes. He is using membership of this place to raise constituency issues as though he were, in effect, a shadow local Member of Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman refuses to deny allegations that he claims his travel costs for that party politicking from Commons allowances designed to support genuine shadow ministerial visits and that he uses his parliamentary office to support that party political activity. My question is simple: is that acceptable under the conventions governing us, and if so, should all the parties now feel free to appoint Members of Parliament as shadow Ministers for constituencies, so that they can act on local issues for party political advantage, and go over the heads of the local MP?

I must answer the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) before anyone else comes in. I understand that he forewarned the Member whom he complains about, who is here in the Chamber. I only wish that Members would not interfere in other constituencies. I also wish that these disputes were not brought to me, but as this dispute has been brought to me, I say this: I do not expect any hon. Member of this House to take up cases other than those in their own constituency. It is wrong. Each individual Member of Parliament jealously guards the fact that their constituency, its boundary and all those within it are there to be looked after by them. I am a constituency MP in my own right, and I would not like it if someone took up cases in my constituency. I am not telling anybody off; I am just saying that everybody in this country has a constituency MP, and they should go to that constituency MP. If someone comes to a Member of Parliament in another constituency, the case should be forwarded to the local MP. That is clear, and it is common sense. If the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) has nothing to say, I think that we should stop the matter there. I think that I have said enough.

Food Labelling Regulations (Amendment)

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 to provide for information about the country of origin of food to be made available to consumers; and for connected purposes.

Many Members from across the House have attempted to improve the law on food labelling, including my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), and the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth). This is my third attempt, and I keep going because there is widespread support for the idea that consumers should have clearer, more accurate and more honest information about the food that they buy.

My Bill has the support of Members across the House and is intended to deal with one particularly pernicious problem in relation to food labelling, which is that consumers buying meat and meat products are routinely misled as to the country of origin due to inadequate and even deceptive labelling. The European directive 2000/13/EC relating to the labelling of food makes it clear that

“The prime consideration for any rules on the labelling of foodstuffs should be the need to inform and protect the consumer.”

It goes on to state:

“Detailed labelling…is the most appropriate since it creates fewest obstacles to free trade”,

and that

“The rules on labelling should also prohibit the use of information that would mislead the purchaser”.

The British rules on food labelling are set out in regulation 5 of the Food Labelling Regulations 1996, which were introduced prior to the European directive, but which cover much the same ground. This states that all food to which the regulations apply

“shall be marked or labelled with . . . particulars of the place of origin or provenance of the food if failure to give such particulars might mislead a purchaser to a material degree as to the true origin or provenance of the food”.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the law was already quite clear and sufficient. Unfortunately, that is not the case and consumers continue to be misled.

On some foodstuffs no indication is given at all that the product is made with imported meat, such as the label on a Tesco chicken dinner in a range of children’s meals, which simply states “Produced in the UK”, when the chicken actually comes from Thailand. Sometimes a phrase will be used to imply country of origin—for example, the Birds Eye Great British Menu range, which on closer examination turns out to be made with imported meat. Sometimes the label will be deliberately vague, as in the case of Sainsbury’s roast chicken slices, which the label describes as “Produced from Brazilian or British Chicken”.

At present producers of imported meat can lawfully use the Union flag on packaging to imply that the product is British when it is not, and they do so. Marks and Spencer has been selling a corned beef sandwich as part of its “nation’s favourites” range with a Union flag that dominates the whole of the front of the label. In small letters on the back is the information that the beef comes from Brazil. To its credit, Marks and Spencer has now recognised that customers may have been misled and is taking steps to repackage the product. That still raises the question why Marks and Spencer used the Union flag in the first place. There is a widespread problem. Consumers are being misled.

The aim of the European directive—to ensure that the rules prohibit the use of information that would mislead the purchaser—is not being met. The aim of the UK’s own food labelling regulations, which call for place of origin labelling if failure to provide this might mislead a purchaser, is not being met. There is clear evidence that consumers want more information, and indeed consumers have a right to know. An ICM poll for the honest food campaign showed that 87 per cent. of consumers in the survey believe the Government should ensure that the country of origin is clearly shown on food products, and 89 per cent. believe that a product such as sausages or bacon labelled as “British” or “Produced in the UK” should mean that the sausages or bacon are from an animal reared in Britain.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in January:

“A pork pie made in Britain from Danish pork can legitimately be labelled as a British pork pie.”

He added:

“That’s a nonsense, and it needs to change.”

I agree, as does the Minister with responsibility for farming, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), whom I am delighted to see in her place, and who is going down very well with farmers in my constituency. She recently appeared on the excellent programme on Channel 4, “Jamie Saves Our Bacon”, and told Jamie Oliver that misleading labelling was “a disgrace”, and I agree.

The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), was an Agriculture Minister 10 years ago, and I am delighted to see him, too, in his place. He told the House in 1999:

“I want to give clear, unambiguous information on the real place of origin, not place of processing or place of slicing; I want to clamp down on misleading place of origin descriptions; and I want to make further progress by lobbying the European Commission and other member states for a system of clear country of origin labelling.”—[Official Report, 28 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 1126.]

There is long-standing cross-party support for my Bill.

On 31 October last year, just two days after my last Food Labelling Bill, the Food Standards Agency updated its food labelling guidance to include advice on country of origin labelling, which is welcome. The FSA acknowledges that

“many consumers see the place of origin as an important contributor to a product’s identity, particularly for meat”.

However, the FSA best practice guidance is not mandatory and the FSA merely describes its guidance as

“some suggestions that businesses may wish to consider”.

Well, they may, or they may not, but it is clear that the new guidance has not prevented the abuses that I described a moment ago, which were found in the shops just last month. The FSA guidance recommends that Norwegian salmon smoked in Scotland should not be called “Scottish smoked salmon”, but that is not compulsory and the danger remains that consumers will be misled.

Country of origin labelling will also benefit food safety. Retailers did their best to withdraw Irish pork products during December’s dioxin scare, but packaging for Irish pork processed anywhere in the UK does not have to state “made with Irish pork”, and it could still have been bought by unwary shoppers. Clear, mandatory country of origin food labelling would have stopped that happening.

There is no shortage of agreement that there is a problem; the question is what we do about it. My conclusion is that the time has come for honest food labelling to be made compulsory. Some people say that legislation on country of origin labelling would amount to a restriction on free trade, but that is simply to misunderstand what consumer choice is all about. It is very hard to see how providing consumers with clear and unambiguous information about where their food comes from could possibly be construed as protectionist.

More fully informed consumers do not protect particular market participants or hinder the operation of a marketplace—they make it work better. Some consumers wish precisely to make choices based on the origins of food. During the apartheid era, many people, finding apartheid abhorrent, understandably wished to avoid buying fruit from South Africa. Nowadays, people wish to know the origins of food to support, through their spending choices, high animal welfare standards or low food miles, for example.

There is widespread support from farmers to chefs to animal welfare bodies for better country of origin labelling. Compassion in World Farming believes that meat and products containing meat should be permitted to be labelled as British only if the animal from which the meat was derived was born, reared and slaughtered in Britain. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has said that transparent labelling is vital in assisting consumers to make informed choices. The honest food campaign is supported by leading chefs such as Clarissa Dickson Wright, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Prue Leith and Rick Stein. My Bill focuses on meat and meat products, because with them lies the biggest problem of consumers being misled. The British Pig Executive has described country of origin labelling as a “key area for improvement”.

There is some compulsory origin labelling already. A note from Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, an international organisation representing some 80 consumer bodies, made the argument for my Bill rather well when it stated:

“The EU has no mandatory country of origin labelling except for fruit, vegetables, beef, fish, eggs and wine”—

it could have added honey and olive oil to the list. It is time for clear country of origin labelling for all meat. It is simplistic to suggest that consumers will automatically buy British; the key point is that consumers should be able to make an informed choice. Some consumers might want to buy authentic Spanish chorizo or German Wurst because they like the taste. That is their choice.

In conclusion, we have been waiting for years for a workable voluntary scheme for country of origin food labelling. The time has come to accept that honest food labelling requires the force of law. That is what consumers have the right to expect, and that is what my Bill provides. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. Richard Bacon, Alistair Burt, Keith Hill, Miss Anne McIntosh, Angus Robertson, Mr. James Paice, Mr. Richard Benyon, Mr. David Ruffley, Nick Herbert, Angela Watkinson and Sir Nicholas Winterton present the Bill.

Mr. Richard Bacon accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 75).

Welfare Reform Bill

Consideration of Bill, as amended in Public Bill Committee

New Clause 1

Jobseeker’s allowance

‘Section 4 of the Jobseekers Act 1995 (c. 18) (amount payable by way of a jobseeker’s allowance) is amended as follows—

(a) in subsection (1), omit paragraph (a), and

(b) omit subsection (2).’.—(Lynne Jones.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 8—Work related activity: payment of additional premium

‘(1) In the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (c. 4), section 135 is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (6) insert—

“(7) The applicable amount shall include an amount in respect of a work-related activity component if the claimant undertakes work-related activity as defined in section 2D(8)(c) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (c. 5).”’.

Amendment 42, in clause 1, page 1, line 8, after ‘benefit”’, insert ‘pilot’.

Amendment 43, page 1, line 9, at beginning insert ‘Pilot’.

Amendment 11, page 1, line 11, leave out ‘imposing on’ and insert ‘offering to’.

Amendment 36, page 1, line 12, after ‘circumstances’, insert

‘and where claimants have guaranteed and predictable access to good quality, affordable and flexible childcare which meets the needs of the parents and the child in the claimants’ household.’.

Amendment 12, page 1, line 12, leave out ‘a requirement’ and insert ‘an opportunity’.

Amendment 44, page 1, line 13, leave out ‘designed’ and insert ‘personally tailored’.

Amendment 13, page 2, line 1, leave out ‘require’ and insert ‘allow’.

Amendment 14, page 2, line 9, leave out from ‘scheme’ to end of line 12 on page 3.

Amendment 15, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

‘(11) Any work undertaken by a participant in a “work for your benefits” scheme shall be—

(a) paid at an hourly rate of no less than the full adult minimum wage; and

(b) paid at an hourly rate no less than that of directly employed staff undertaking the same role.’.

Amendment 45, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

‘(11) This section shall have no effect after 31 December 2013.

(12) Evaluation of these pilots shall have particular regard to—

(a) the impact on single parents,

(b) the impact on claimants identified as having health problems or disabilities,

(c) the impact on claimants identified as having low skills,

(d) the impact on claimants identified as having problems with substance misuse.

(e) the impact on the overall level of employment within organisations that operate work for your benefit schemes.’.

Amendment 16, page 4, leave out lines 12 to 20.

Amendment 17, in clause 2, page 4, line 22, at end insert—

‘(A1) This section does not apply in the case of a single parent of a child aged seven years or younger.’.

Amendment 35, page 4, line 22, at end insert—

‘(A1) This section does not apply in the case of a single parent with a child under five years of age.’.

Amendment 49, page 4, line 26, leave out from ‘with’ to ‘continuing’ in line 28 and insert

‘providing a person who is entitled to income support an entitlement to undertake personally tailored work-related activity in accordance with regulations while’.

Amendment 18, page 4, line 26, leave out ‘imposing on’ and insert ‘offering to’.

Amendment 19, page 4, line 27, leave out ‘a requirement’ and insert ‘an opportunity’.

Amendment 20, page 4, line 28, leave out ‘as a condition of’ and insert ‘while’.

Amendment 21, in clause 2, page 4, line 31, leave out ‘imposing on’ and insert ‘offering to’.

Amendment 50, page 4, line 31, leave out ‘imposing on’ and insert ‘entitling’.

Amendment 22, page 4, line 37, leave out ‘a requirement’ and insert ‘an opportunity’.

Amendment 51, page 4, leave out lines 37 to 39 and insert—

‘to access personally tailored work-related activity’.

Amendment 23, page 4, line 39, leave out ‘as a condition of’ and insert ‘with’.

Amendment 24, page 5, leave out from line 2 to end of line 43.

Amendment 52, page 5, line 4, leave out ‘requirement’ and insert ‘entitlement’.

Amendment 53, page 5, line 5, leave out ‘requirement’ and insert ‘entitlement’.

Amendment 54, page 5, line 7, leave out from ‘is’ to end of line 10 and insert

‘entitled to personally tailored work-related activity services can access those services and the amount of activity the person may access at any time.’.

Amendment 55, page 5, leave out lines 11 to 30.

Amendment 56, page 5, line 39, at end insert—

‘(c) for requirements that reductions shall not be applied where they may have adverse consequences for the wellbeing of children in a household or may worsen the severity or extent of child poverty.’.

Amendment 25, page 5, leave out lines 47 and 48.

Amendment 57, page 6, line 34, leave out from beginning to ‘may’ in line 35 and insert

‘An action plan must be reconsidered if the person to whom it is provided makes a request on reasonable grounds for reconsideration to occur and regulations’.

Amendment 58, page 6, leave out line 37 and insert—

‘(a) the factors that may be taken into account in deciding reasonable grounds;’.

Amendment 59, page 6, line 44, leave out from beginning to end of line 14 on page 7.

Amendment 26, page 7, leave out from line 15 to end of line 8 on page 9.

Amendment 46, page 11, line 1, leave out Clause 4.

Amendment 47, page 15, line 41, leave out Clause 11.

Amendment 60, page 16, line 40, leave out Clause 12.

Amendment 61, in clause 19, page 23, leave out lines 38 to 45.

Amendment 62, page 23, line 46, leave out from beginning to end of line 10 on page 24.

Amendment 64, page 26, leave out lines 1 to 38.

Amendment 29, in page 31, line 24, leave out Clause 23.

Amendment 65, in clause 24, page 34, line 17, leave out from ‘period’ to ‘in’ in line 18 and insert ‘of one week’.

Mr. Speaker, I am somewhat surprised to be called as I had not realised that my new clause had been selected, so please forgive me if I am not quite ready. The new clause calls for an improvement in the level of unemployment benefit. At present, this benefit is set at just over £60 a week for those over 25 and it is somewhat less for those between 18 and 25.

I am not even sure which measure I am speaking to, but I am advised by my hon. Friend that this new clause would remove the lower rate that applies to young people.

My hon. Friend tabled two excellent new clauses, the first of which would remove the younger rate and has now been selected. Unfortunately, the second, new clause 2, has not been selected. It would have increased the jobseeker’s allowance by £15. However, we will return to that on Budget day, when I am sure that the Government will implement that measure.

I had finally got round to appreciating what my hon. Friend said, but I thank him for his intervention.

We are in a recession, and unemployment is rising. It would be somewhat disingenuous to suggest that people are unemployed through their own fault. I recall my right hon. Friend’s the Prime Minister’s maiden speech back in 1983, and my right hon. Friend, who probably had ambitions to become Prime Minister but did not realise that he would achieve them, spoke with great passion about the low levels of benefit paid to those then on unemployment benefit. He castigated the then Government for considering that benefit rates should be kept low because it would give people an incentive to get work. He made a good case explaining why that was absolute nonsense. Sadly, we are back in similar circumstances.

Unlike the Government then, the present Government are actively helping people to get back into work, and I support the assistance being given—the training, advice and help. However, where I do take issue with my Government is on the fact that they still feel that people need to be given disincentives, in the form of benefit sanctions, in order to engage with the world of work. I disagree with that view, and so did the Prime Minister when he was a new Back Bencher.

The other new clause that I tabled, which unfortunately was not selected, would have increased the basic level of unemployment benefit of £60 a week by £15 a week. That would be equivalent to increasing benefit in line with earnings, as opposed to prices. For those under 25, the rate is even lower, and I challenge any hon. Member to live on £60 a week, which is the main rate of benefit, and the rate that my new clause argues should apply to younger unemployed people. It is an impossible sum to live on.

The Government have been very generous with other benefits, such as those for pensioners. We allow pensioners to live on no less than double the amount that is available as unemployment benefit and nearly three times the amount available to younger claimants. In addition to a more generous basic level of income, pensioners are quite rightly entitled to other sources of income and means of making life easier, such as free travel passes, the winter fuel allowance and the like.

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Does she recall that the background of less money being paid to young people was the Tory changes of 1988? We moved from a system in which there was a householder rate and a non-householder rate, the presumption being that someone should get more if they had a house to run, to a system of an over-25 rate and an under-25 rate. That was done on the basis that the Tories thought that young people up to 25 ought to be living with their parents. Does she accept that the present system discriminates against young people who have to live independently, perhaps through no fault of their own? They are treated as non-householders, to use the old language, when in fact they may be householders.

I agree entirely, and I have personal experience of that. I had to leave home at 18, before I went to university, because conditions at home had become so difficult. I am sure that that must apply to many young people. By the time I was 21 or 22, I was in a position to buy my own home. Few young people are in that position today, but even those living at home are expected to make contributions to the running of the household. I believe that it is impossible for them to live on £45 a week. The purpose of the new clause is to remove that punitive level of benefit for young people. However, we must do everything that we can to assist young people into work and to make the programmes that we will discuss later as effective as possible.

The new clause is laudable, and in an ideal world we would all want to support it, but can the hon. Lady tell the House what it would cost each year to give the higher level of unemployment benefit to the under-25s? Does she have an estimate of that? I believe that it is relevant, given that resources are tight. The Government have a difficult job in deciding how best to spend their limited resources, upon which there are many demands.

I do not have the precise total figures, but it would be £750 a year for each unemployed young person. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman can probably work out the total, but it is probably a few hundred million pounds—a sum that pales into insignificance compared with what is being handed out to banks and what has been taken as retirement pay by just a few bankers. Money put towards unemployed young people would be much more likely to help to stimulate demand in the economy than money that goes to failed bankers. Despite the financial problems that we face, it is immoral to expect young people to have to live on such a small amount of money. I am pleased to see the hon. Gentleman nodding his head, and I hope that he will support the new clause.

In conclusion, I wish to give a quotation from the speech that I mentioned earlier; it was made by the current Prime Minister on 27 July 1983. He talked about the unemployment benefit level of £26 a week. That was 26 years ago, and my right hon. Friend felt that it was a completely inadequate sum. Yet here we are today, and unemployed people have to survive on less than twice that amount despite the inflation that has occurred in between. My right hon. Friend said:

“The debate about the so-called unemployed trap, and the so-called incentives that it is claimed will be needed to get the unemployed back to work, is designed to obscure what everyone knows. If there are no jobs, no amount of poverty and no degree of destitution will create jobs where none exist.”—[Official Report, 27 July 1983; Vol. 46, c. 1242.]

The Government need to do everything that they can to ensure that those jobs exist. They can do—and are doing—a considerable amount, unlike the party that was in government in 1983. However, the Government of my right hon. Friend, who expressed those sentiments when he first entered the House, should use the power that is now in their hands to pay reasonable benefit to people who are unemployed through no fault of their own.

My hon. Friend started her comments by explaining that the new clause was motivated by a concern for people who have lost their jobs as a direct result of the recession. Does she envisage some sort of sunset provision for the new clause? When, inevitably, we move to a period of economic growth and there are more jobs in the market, the new clause will not have its current force.

No, I do not envisage that, because I believe that it is fundamentally wrong to discriminate against young people. Unfortunately, the new clause would not uprate general unemployment benefit. The principles are that discrimination should end and that no one should be expected to live on such a meagre amount of benefit.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady, although I do not agree with the substance of her amendments. I congratulate her on the elegant—I mean eloquent—way in which she presented her case. Although she was eloquent, as well as elegant, I must advise my hon. Friends to vote against her amendments because they would reduce whatever value the provisions contain.

As the hon. Lady explained, the new clause is an attempt to increase jobseeker’s allowance. Although it was not selected, she tabled another amendment, which specified £15 a week as the amount by which she wanted it increased. The group also includes amendments that would make the work-related activity that clause 2 requires of certain benefit claimants voluntary, and others that would make the “work for your benefit” schemes, which apply to people after two years of unemployment, pilot schemes so that they do not immediately take effect. Some of her hon. Friends would do away with the provisions for contracting out welfare-to-work services—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Some Labour Members shout, “Hear, hear.” However, the provisions are an important aspect of the Bill, although they do not go nearly as far as Conservative Members would go, or nearly far enough, given the scale of the problem that the country faces.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) has tabled similar amendments and I look forward to hearing his case for them. The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) mentioned 1988 and a voice behind me tempted me to say that next week we might hear about Neville Chamberlain’s foreign policy or Benjamin Disraeli’s mistakes with the title of Empress of India. At least the hon. Gentleman said a little more than the hon. Member for Rochdale said in Committee. We wait to hear the Liberal Democrats say where exactly they stand on welfare reform and the principles that they would follow, instead of talking about 1988.

Does the Conservative party believe that we should discriminate against young people in the amount of JSA that they receive? Should not they receive the same as everybody else?

I have made it clear, I hope, that we will not support the proposals made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), but Liberal Democrat Members’ comments suggest that they might do so, which would add that to the already-long list of Liberal Democrat spending commitments. We look forward to more forthrightness, because we have not had much so far.

We are clear where we stand. We will vote against the amendments standing in the name of the hon. Lady and her colleagues—I thought that I had already made that clear, but I will do so again. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] The amendments would remove what value there is in the Bill, which does not go far enough. We want a more thoroughgoing approach to welfare reform, and although, by and large, we approve of the Bill’s provisions, it simply does not go far enough.

Some of the concerns of Government Back Benchers might be allayed when they see how little the Bill requires of claimants. There are some 2.6 million existing incapacity benefit claimants, 1.5 million of whom have been on that benefit for five years or more. For those aged under 50, the requirement made under the Government’s plans is that they attend three interviews, and that is it. For incapacity benefit claimants aged over 50, of whom there are sadly too many, the only requirement that the Government make is that they attend a single work-focused interview. They are not required to do anything as a result of that interview; they are simply required to attend.

We think that that is far too little help to offer people who need a great deal of help to get back to work, particularly in today’s circumstances, when they will be competing for work against so many newly unemployed people. We did not choose the timing of the Bill; it was chosen by the Government. After 12 years of dither and delay, the Government have at last embarked on welfare reform, just at a time when there are difficult circumstances in the economy and when, sadly, queues at the job centres are being swollen by people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and who in many cases have long records of work.

Amendment 35, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, relates to a completely legitimate issue to take up with the Government—the work-related activity that may be required of single parents. Clause 2 deals with the work-related activity that may be required of certain benefit claimants, including those on income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance or income-related employment and support allowance. Amendment 35 would prevent those requirements from applying to a single parent with a child aged under five. An amendment standing in the names of Government Back Benchers would raise the age to seven, but for reasons that I will explain, we prefer five as the age at which to make those requirements.

Is the hon. Gentleman telling the House that he has junked the policy of the social justice policy group, which is headed by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), his former party leader, and which called for parents whose youngest child was under five to have between five and 10 hours a week preparing for work? Has he now dumped that policy?

I was going to turn to that point, but as the hon. Gentleman is there already I will deal with it now. If he studies the Green Paper that we issued last January, he will see that it mentions the age limit of five and that there is no age limit set below five. We can be judged only on what we propose in a Green Paper as a statement of our policy. The question that he and his colleagues on the Labour Benches have to answer is: why, when the Government published their Green Paper last July—six months after ours—did they chose five as the age at which those requirements should be made and why was there a change from five in July to three in December? What changed between July and December to bring that about?

As the hon. Gentleman is interested in this matter, may I take him through its history? It was not until June 2007 that the Government announced that they were moving single parents with children over the age of seven from income support to jobseeker’s allowance, where the receipt of their benefits would be subject to conditionality. For many years under this Government, and until very recently, single parents were entitled to remain on income support until their youngest child reached the age of 16.

The Government’s proposals of June 2007 began to be implemented last autumn. It is being done in stages, and single parents with children over the age of 12 are already being moved from income support to jobseeker’s allowance. From October 2010, single parents with children aged over seven will receive jobseeker’s allowance rather than income support.

Let me make it clear that we support these changes. We have no problem with them—we did not demur when they were first announced in June 2007—but the Government have since proposed to go further. In December last year, in their response to the Gregg review on conditionality, they proposed making further requirements of single parents with children aged over seven. These are the really important points for this debate. The Government’s proposals were clearly set out in their response to the Gregg report.

The Government said that, when the youngest child is aged under 12 months, the single parent is not to be subject to any conditionality requirements. When the child reaches one year old, the single parent becomes part of what the Government term the progression to work group and, at that point, the single parent will be

“required to attend Work Focused Interviews and agree an action plan. They are not mandated to undertake any activities recorded on the action plan or any other activities, although they will be encouraged to do so on a voluntary basis.”

When the youngest child reaches three, another distinct stage is reached. According to the Government’s document, when the child turns three, the single parent is

“required to follow the full progression to Work regime, based around Work Focused interviews, action plans, work related activity and the backstop of adviser direction”.

Clearly, there is a significant stepping up of requirements when the child reaches the age of three, and the Government will have to explain that. Receipt of benefit for the single parent of a child aged three or over is conditional on undertaking work-related activity. There is also the possibility of direction being given to the single parent about such work-related activity, and it is evident that the single parent could face a sanction of a reduction in benefit as a result of failure to comply with the requirements.

It seems curious that, for more than 10 years, the Government were content to permit single parents to remain on income support until their youngest child reached the age of 16, yet, in the space of little more than 18 months, they introduced proposals to move single parents from income support to jobseeker’s allowance when the youngest child reaches seven—which we support—and proposed to go further still in imposing this degree of conditionality and rigour on the single parent from the time their youngest child reaches three. Is the correct balance being struck between conditionality and the age of the child? That is a legitimate question to ask. It is particularly legitimate to ask whether three is the appropriate age for these purposes.

The hon. Gentleman is making a persuasive case, and I hope that those on my Front Bench will listen to him. Does he agree that his case is strengthened by the suggestion in the Work and Pensions Committee’s recent report that the customer must have the final say on whether child care is suitable and affordable at the age of three? The Bill leaves that decision with the adviser, but is not the parent of a child aged three or four the best person to make that decision?

To be fair to the Government, they have said that they foresee that there will be discussions and interviews. Behind those interviews, however, there will be requirements and the possibility of sanctions and of directions from advisers to single parents. The Government have to face the fact that, under this scheme, a single parent with a child aged three or over will face the possibility of sanctions.

On the issue of the age of three, I have certainly visited a number of child care and Sure Start centres where many parents benefiting from the free child care offered by the Government said that they now had the time to start thinking about employment and training. One of the benefits of putting that into legislation is that the schemes will be in place to enable parents to get the help and support, which they have not always had in the past, to enable them to get back into work.

Such places may be available, but the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform conceded in Committee that such places were not available throughout the whole country. The Government looked into the issue themselves and published a Green Paper, which I adverted to earlier following a helpful intervention. In that Green Paper of July 2008, the Government said that they were

“considering whether we could introduce extra activity, as appropriate, when a lone parent’s youngest child becomes five and goes to school full time so that preparation for work becomes a natural progression rather than a sudden step up.”

The Government’s Green Paper thus seemed to view the age of five—the age at which a child starts school—as the natural age to support for these purposes. It was only when the Government moved from that position that we began to look further at the question ourselves. Our amendment legitimately asks whether the balance is being correctly struck. The proposals to require lone parents to carry out work-related activity are right in principle, but is the balance being struck in the right place and is the age appropriate to the requirements? I believe that Government Members should think long and hard about that in the light of the full history that I have set out and particularly when they consider the nature of the regime to which single parents with children as young as three will be subject.

Let me make it clear again that we do not demur from the general principle of conditionality for single parents, or from the proposition that work is beneficial for both parent and child. However, there has to be a question of age appropriateness. We believe, quite simply, that in all the circumstances it would be more sensible if the age of the youngest child for these purposes were set at five, which is, after all, the age for starting school. We think that the Government have not got the balance right; if they press ahead on this, we would have to consider our position.

We will be seeking your leave, Mr. Speaker, to vote on this matter when we have had the opportunity to hear what the Minister has to say. I do not know whether, at this late stage, he is prepared to accept our amendment, but if not we will certainly press it to a vote because we consider that the Government have not got this issue right. It may be that they have wider objectives in mind; I do not know. They may wish to say, as has been implied, that because we do not agree with the Government’s original proposals on the appropriate age of the single parent’s child, we are opposing the whole of the Bill. If they want to say that, let them; but we are not. We support the Bill in principle, as we have indicated.

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify something for me? He said a few moments ago that his party will have to consider its position, but a few seconds later he said he wanted a Division on it. Does that mean that in those few seconds he has considered his party’s position and decided that the party is against it?

I give Ministers the credit of thinking that they want to listen to the debate. They may want to hear what I have to say; they may want to listen to what their hon. Friends say. What I am saying is that if the Government press ahead with this provision, we will press it to the vote. I hope that I have made that clear, just as I have made everything else I have said absolutely clear. We are not against the Government on the Bill. We think that it does not go nearly far enough, and anybody can see that. On this issue, we are going to have to disagree with the Government and, if it comes to it, we shall seek to press the amendment to the vote.

This is a large group of amendments and new clauses, some of which I shall wish to press to a vote. I shall deal with them in a bureaucratic fashion, for which I apologise.

The first block consists of amendments 11 to 14 and amendment 16, which seek to make Workfare voluntary. I shall wish to press them to a vote at some stage. I shall also wish to press amendment 15, which seeks to ensure that if people are forced on to Workfare they should be paid the minimum wage and/or the rate for the job, unless the Government concede. I live in hope.

Amendment 17 exempts lone parents with children aged seven and under from the conditions placed on them in relation to work-related activities. The choice of the age of seven can be discussed further later, but it is based on practice. I shall be happy not to press the amendment to a vote if amendment 35, tabled by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison)—which proposes the exemption of lone parents with a child under five—is pressed, and in that event I will support amendment 35.

The next block consists of amendments 18 to 25, which seek to make work-related activities voluntary. I wish to discuss those amendments, but not to press them to a vote. Amendments 26 and 29 deal with the privatisation of jobcentres’ role in relation to the long-term unemployed and others. I shall wish to press those to a vote if possible. It is, of course, open to you, Mr. Speaker, to decide whether that is appropriate. This is a large group of amendments, but they concern key issues involving the future of the welfare state, the welfare system and the administration of welfare. I fear that the system will not merely be amended in the short term, and that this Government or their successors may build on it in introducing elements of compulsion beyond those in the Bill, along with more sweeping privatisations. That is why I consider that the amendments concern matters of principle.

I shall try to be brief, because we have many other matters to discuss today. I tabled the amendments because, in my view, the Bill is an anachronism. It appears to have been designed for another age: an age when employment was available, and it was argued that people were not taking advantage of that. It seems to pursue the Government’s twin obsessions with targeting lone parents and privatising public services, at a time when 2 million people are unemployed and 3 million could be unemployed by the end of the year. Ten people are chasing every vacancy. People are desperate for work. It is hard to comprehend why the Government are focusing on introducing Workfare, a “work for your benefit” scheme piloted for the long-term unemployed and other groups, forcing them into work. Unless my amendment seeking payment of the minimum wage is passed, people will be forced to work 35 hours a week for £1.73 an hour in jobseeker’s allowance, while, unless new clause 1 is passed, the under-25s will be paid £1.37 an hour. That is not voluntary; it will be used as a sanction. If people refuse to comply, they will lose their benefits.

The argument for welfare reform initially advanced by the Secretary of State was the need to help people back into work. My amendments seek to turn a demand into an offer and a requirement into an opportunity. If Workfare constitutes an offer of assistance in work, why does it include an element of enforcement? When the PCS parliamentary group met the Secretary of State last week, he had changed his emphasis, and was more concerned with the need to tackle fraud and deal with people who claimed benefits without being willing to work. The media view of the Bill’s objectives seems to vary according to which newspaper Ministers have spoken to. If it is The Guardian, the main thrust of the legislation is support and advice; if it is the Daily Mail, it is tackling fraud and scroungers. In my view, the linking of these two issues is stigmatising.

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the big issue these days is not fraud, but mistakes committed by the Department for Work and Pensions, and that certain clauses of the Bill will condemn some people—such as those who may not be very articulate—to sanctions to which they should not be subject?

I think the Bill introduces sanctions that, as we all know from our weekly advice surgeries, are usually applied against the most vulnerable and confused and those who live the most chaotic lives. In addition, they introduce a stigma to the process: under this Bill, support, advice and assistance are provided not on a voluntary basis, but on a forced basis, stigmatising claimants as workshy or scroungers. That is my big fear; I fear that this runs counter to everything the Government have been arguing for in the direction of welfare reform policy. If this is about fraud, we must recognise that according to a ministerial statement last month, there is now the lowest level of fraud in recorded history. As a result of the work undertaken by dedicated DWP staff, fraud has been reduced by two thirds since 2001 and it accounts for only 0.06 per cent. of the overall budget. If we are to tackle fraud, that is not about introducing sanctions and enhancing the stigma on claimants; instead, it is about following the tested route of having informants and conducting investigations.

If the intention of Workfare is to help people into work, would my hon. Friend expect some evidence to have been produced of the effects of schemes being introduced in other countries? Has he seen any such evidence?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I want to come on to that. I have trawled the different pieces of research the Department has undertaken to find evidence for developing this policy and establishing its potential success.

I have been trying to discover the genesis of the policy. I looked back to some of the debates in this House and some of the policy statements Ministers made in the mid-1990s. In 1996, the Conservative Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), told the Conservative party conference:

“I can announce a revolutionary fourth step in our welfare to work programme.

For the first time, we will be involving the private sector in helping people move into jobs. Private firms will compete with Government teams.”

In 1996, they introduced “project work”, as it was called, which contained a compulsory work element for claimants of benefits of up to 13 weeks for those unemployed for two years or more. This sounds familiar, does it not? However, at that time, although it was compulsory, participants received an extra £10 week on top of the jobseeker’s allowance for participating in the scheme, so there was also an incentive. The reaction at the time from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who went on to become the Deputy Prime Minister, was condemnatory. He said that under that Government, who had said in 1979 that Labour was not working, unemployment had now grown to 2.5 million, even on the Government’s fiddled figures, and that their proposals were a form of Workfare involving chain gangs and that they were not the same as proper jobs. It was, therefore, condemned outright at that point by the person who went on to become the Deputy Prime Minister of this Administration. Another Labour Member said that the Government’s Workfare proposals were taking us back to the days of the work house. It was not satisfactory then, and I do not believe that it is satisfactory now. It was condemned outright.

What is the evidence? What judgments have been made? Reference has been made to some of the expert studies. The DWP commissioned the Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research to conduct research on workfare programmes in Australia, Canada and the US.

The resulting report concluded:

“There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers.”

It continued:

“Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.”

That is exactly the scenario that we are facing.

I looked again at what was said by Mr. Freud, who, as a former investment banker, is obviously well experienced in poverty and welfare. He designed some of the proposals, but he did not specifically recommend a “work for your benefit” scheme; he recommended additional conditionality. Whatever happened to him? I believe he is about to be appointed to the House of Lords by the Opposition to lead this legislation through on their side and perhaps try to introduce yet more draconian proposals.

The other review on this aspect of the Bill was carried out by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which published its report on 25 February. It reiterated:

“We are not convinced that the current design of FND will discourage the creaming and parking of customers on the programme.”

That refers to the private sector. The Committee, too, referred to the DWP’s research and the finding that Workfare was the least effective means of getting people into work in weak labour markets; so it is difficult to see where the supporting evidence to justify this scheme has come from.

The one body that the Government appoint to advise them on social security is the Social Security Advisory Committee. Its chair, Sir Richard Tilt, submitted his views, saying:

“We have seen no evidence to suggest that any of the contemporary ‘workfare’ models are likely to be effective in Great Britain”.

In addition, he said that Workfare schemes would be

“creating an additional stigma for those who are long term unemployed”.

That finding was reinforced by the Child Poverty Action Group, whose concern is that the scheme is unlikely to achieve much more than the stigmatisation of a small group of very vulnerable people.

Does my hon. Friend have any evidence of what Workfare has achieved in the United States, where there are reports of severe destitution as a result of it and the stigmatisation of people who then find great difficulty in getting jobs, even when the economy turns upward later on?

The one objective piece of evidence provided to the Department was its own research, which found that the Workfare scheme in the United States does not provide long-term, sustainable employment. That evidence was supplied to the Secretary of State and to the Work and Pensions Committee, and, on that basis, the Committee has expressed scepticism about the Government’s proposals.

My proposals try to restore the scheme to what the Government originally intended, namely to make it voluntary. My objective is to ensure that instead of having a scheme that stigmatises, the support and assistance provided to the long-term unemployed is provided as an offer—an opportunity of work experience, voluntarily entered into by the claimant. In that way, the support would be made much more effective and if people took up their offer, they would be properly rewarded. My proposals would mean that as a result of their work such people would be paid at the minimum wage or through a job-related payment. Again, that would prevent the exploitation of the unemployed by unscrupulous employers, who may wish to substitute those on this work experience—if they are not being paid any wage and are being paid only jobseeker’s allowance—with temporary unemployed emplacements.

I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s proposal about people volunteering to go on such schemes. Does he accept that those who are willing to volunteer to go on such schemes already have a plethora of schemes that they can go on? What the Government seek to achieve is to reach the core of people who are not prepared, for one reason or another, to join schemes. Such people therefore must be targeted in order to ensure that the opportunities for work and for preparation for such opportunities are taken up, so that they can have the dignity of eventually finding themselves in full-time employment, rather than being dependent on the state.

We are all trying to ensure that we provide opportunities for people to gain the skills and support that they need to get into work. I am trying to explain that there is no evidence that compulsory schemes—the Workfare schemes that have been implemented around the world—have worked. In fact, the reverse is true. The introduction of compulsion has led to stigma, which has provided an even more depressing overlay on the experiences and anxieties of the long-term unemployed. The Government were unable to provide any evidence that justifies the introduction of compulsion in this way. There are already elements of compulsion in the system, and the Bill would overlay those in a completely counter-productive way. Eventually, that would waste the resources of staff in the Department and the sector.

We know that those who participate voluntarily in schemes are much more successful in getting into work. A leaked letter from the DWP confirmed that mandatory customers of pathways to work had a success rate of only 5.99 per cent., in the phases examined, whereas those who came forward voluntarily—who were actually further from the labour market than the mandatory customers—had a success rate of 27 per cent., or nearly five times more. If people know about voluntary programmes and are encouraged to engage in them, the outcome is far more successful than when they are compelled to do so.

The evidence confirms what my hon. Friend says. It relates to new clause 2 as much as it does to the introduction of Workfare. New clause 2 would introduce the compulsory element in relation to work-related activity, and I looked at the evidence that was provided by the Social Security Advisory Committee to the Gregg review and the White Paper. It states:

“The focus on sanctions is, we believe, unhelpful and does not take proper account of the full findings of the Department’s own research or our own work. We are disappointed that more evidence has not been presented to prove that sanctions and compulsion are effective in generating long term sustainable employment.”

It concludes:

“We remain unconvinced that the evidence to support this view is either consistent or robust, or that evidence of improved compliance under threat of sanctions necessarily leads to improved engagement and activation.”

We have discussed with the various agencies and organisations at length—over nearly a two-year period— what their views are and what they think the reaction will be on the ground. Most of us have worked with the Child Poverty Action Group over the years and I have a great deal of respect for its expertise and the soundness of its advice. It says that claimants do not need compulsion to take up high quality training and employment services.

Evidence from citizens advice bureaux and the Government’s own research both showed clearly that, in most cases, threatening benefits cuts is neither necessary nor effective in moving people off benefits and into work, and they tend to hurt the most vulnerable. What happens to the other members of the family when every sanction has been applied? Most of us will have dealt with that situation, and the answer is that we then have to trawl around social service powers to assist them as best we can.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that we probably should not introduce more compulsion, but does he agree that if we did, it would be effective only if the benefit level were higher, so that the excess level could be taken away but people could still live on the rest?

That relates to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) made when she moved new clause 1. We are already dealing with people on the margins and with families in the direst circumstances in our society. We are dealing with vulnerable people, who are often confused and chaotic. The offer of assistance, if it comes with sanctions, acts as a stigmatising deterrent. If we apply those sanctions, we push those people over the edge into absolute poverty the like of which I do not think that any Member of this House would want to support or experience.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that we are already dealing with people who are on the margins. However, they are often on the margins because they have become dependent on inadequate state benefits. Surely the way to remove them from the margins is to get them into useful employment and to get them on the employment ladder. If they are not prepared to volunteer to take the first step on to that ladder, is it not the duty of the House to ensure that we put something in place that will enable them to take that first step?

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I accept that it is said with the best of intentions, but my argument is that such sanctions do not work. The only thing that we have found to work is support and incentives. Departments other than the Department for Work and Pensions are learning from experience. For example, a few weeks ago, on 27 February, the Ministry of Justice announced the withdrawal of its benefit sanction for breach of community order pilots. That announcement was made in a written statement, which some hon. Members might have missed—it was not the most scintillating statement. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), said:

“Initial evaluation research showed a modest 1.8 per cent. improvement in compliance by sanctioned offenders”.

He added that

“once all costs had been factored in, the overall sum for continuing the scheme would be in the region of”


“or £5.60p for every £1 of savings made under the scheme.”—[Official Report, 27 February 2009; Vol. 488, c. 37WS.]

Under the Government’s proposals we are to invest a large amount of money in a sanctions regime, but our argument is that we need to build that money into the support regime and an incentive package. Part of that incentive should be linked to enabling people to earn a decent wage when they get work. As we have seen from recent Government figures, a large number of children are living in families that are in poverty even when the parents are in work. I would rather invest the money positively in increasing such elements as the minimum wage and in other forms of support so that we could get people into work.

The attitude displayed towards the unemployed that seems to be retained in the psyche of the Government is that unemployment is about individual guilt and individual unwillingness to work. When we have 2 million unemployed—possibly 3 million by the end of the year—and when people are chasing every vacancy they can, I do not think that that reasoning should govern the thrust of policy. Let me quote what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is currently the deputy leader of the Labour party, said in 1995:

“The vast majority of the unemployed are not out of work because they are work-shy. They are out of work for three reasons: jobs are not available; they cannot earn enough to make it worth moving from benefit into employment; or they lack the skills for existing vacancies.”—[Official Report, 10 January 1995; Vol. 252, c. 58-59.]

The thrust of Government policy has, I hope, been to invest in those skills so that people can qualify for those vacancies as they appear. That thrust certainly should not include the sanctions that we are introducing through the Bill, which is why my amendments to clause 2 on work-related activities will make those activities voluntary.

Let me turn to the issue of lone parents. I tabled amendment 17 because I wanted to exempt lone parents with children aged seven and under from the sanctions. As I said, I shall not press the amendment to a Division on the basis that the Opposition will press their amendment 35, which would apply to parents of children under the age of five, to a Division. I tabled amendment 17 because I agree with some of the statements that have been made previously by Labour Members. I cherish one statement, which reads:

“The reality is that many mothers are forced out of the door and back to work before they want to because of financial constraints…The state should pay for this ‘family’ care in the same way it pays for the state pension of at least £150 a week”.

Would I even think of moving such an amendment? However, I fully support what the current deputy leader of the Labour party said in 2000. It is difficult to see why we are pressing ahead with penalising lone parents yet again. Why are we are introducing this element of stigmatisation, given what the current deputy leader of the Labour party has said about our knowing and cherishing the role that parents play in our society?

I want to be very clear, so it is worth going through the history of the matter. The November 2008 changes to the lone parent entitlement that reduced from 16 to 12 the age of the youngest child for whom an income support claim could be made have already removed 135,000 people from that benefit. That age limit will fall to seven in 2010, by which time 315,000 fewer lone parents will be entitled to lone parent benefit. Under the Bill, the youngest age of child entitlement will effectively be reduced to three. After their youngest child reaches that age, lone parents will become subject to work-related activities as part of the progression to work regime. There are approximately 230,000 lone parents with children aged three to six, inclusive, so we are not talking about a large number of people.

To be frank, the Government’s record of getting lone parents back into work on a voluntary basis is superb, and is an achievement by this Administration that we ought to brag about. The voluntary new deal for lone parents began in October 1998 and is delivered by civil servants and others through Jobcentre Plus. It has found jobs for the 64.5 per cent. of the lone parents who have participated, and that compares with the 62.5 per cent. of members of the youth scheme who have been found work. The nearly 1 million lone parents on the new deal scheme are outperforming any other group, which highlights the value of the voluntary approach.

Again, that demonstrates that the voluntary approach that the Government have used in respect of lone parents has been incredibly successful. The Government have brought lone parents on, given them support and got them into work that the figures that we have seen suggest is sustainable.

What is stopping others in the lone parent category getting back into work? I am trying to look at evidence-based policy making, and the most detailed work has been done by Citizens Advice. Its report on the matter said that the main barriers for lone parents were inflexible jobs and employers, lack of access to affordable child care, inadequate support in making the transition to work, being financially worse off in work than on benefit, inflexibility in the benefits system, and money problems.

Those are the issues that we should address. It is not that lone parents do not want to work or support their families, because the truth is that they want what we all want—a proper balance between looking after their children and a job that is decent and properly paid and which at the same time enables them to afford child care.

Again, I looked for the evidence. Research by the Department for Work and Pensions published in 2008 found that the impact of sanctions on lone parents seeking employment would be “negligible”. Yet the Government are going to force lone parents through another stigmatising process: they are going to put pressure on them again and waste a large amount of resources for a negligible effect.

Why are we doing that? The Government are becoming almost obsessional. I looked at the evidence, and consulted the experts on the ground—in this case the organisations One Parent Families and Gingerbread. They advocate an approach that I thought was evolving into Government policy at one time. They say that, instead of threatening sanctions, we should be offering a premium for participating in work-related activities. That would allow us to demonstrate to people that engaging in work will gain additional income, which is the point that the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) made earlier.

We need to incentivise participation, not use sanctions. As I said, our aim with amendment 17 was to prevent the change proposed in the Bill from applying to children aged seven or under, but I shall certainly support amendment 35, which would do the same for children up to five.

I turn now to the amendments dealing with privatisation. Again, I have been trying to clarify why the Government have moved further along the obsessional and dogmatic road towards privatisation of this section of our public services. It may be ideology, but the TUC briefing circulated to all hon. Members spoke about dogma, and I cannot disagree. What is the Government’s attitude to the performance of in-house jobcentre staff? The DWP website describes Jobcentre Plus as a

“world leading welfare to work organisation”.

When the PCS parliamentary group met the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions last week, he described the jobcentre service and the staff as “excellent” and commended them for their work.

What seems to have happened along the path in recent years and certainly in the development of the Bill is that Mr. Freud has come along. He is an expert banker—I think that that is the expression—and one of his key themes is the privatisation of the service. Again, we looked for evidence of why that should be so. I looked at the Select Committee on Work and Pensions report on the DWP’s commissioning strategy and the flexible new deal, which says that

“fundamental flaws exist in the design of the FND and the assumptions upon which it is based… the financial model for the FND is flawed and its targets unrealistic... there is less evidence from the UK to substantiate this approach… DWP needs to build its evidence base”.

That was the recommendation. We have yet to see any evidence base developed to promote the privatisation of the services.

What is even more dogmatic is that a section of the work to be privatised is set aside, without even allowing jobcentres to bid for it. Where is the “what works best” ethos in that approach? Again, I go back to the research undertaken to justify the privatisation. Let me quote the Cardiff university research report of 2008. On the contracting out of employment services to third and private sectors, it concluded:

“whenever Jobcentre Plus staff have been allowed the same flexibilities and funding as private sector companies or charitable organisations they have been able to compete with, if not surpass, the performance of contractors.”

QED, is it not? The research from Cardiff demonstrates the point, but it was not just that, was it?

There was a leaked report in The Observer only a couple of weeks ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak and I tabled a series of parliamentary questions to ask what evidence existed about privatisation and the past performance of the private sector in delivering some of the objectives set for incapacity benefit claimants and other claimants. We were advised by Ministers that no report or evidence was available that we could use to judge any further privatisation proposals. We then discovered, because of a leak, that there had been a DWP report on that very issue. It was marked “restricted” and circulated to jobcentre managers, not to hon. Members or the House. We were told that it was not published because the research was still in progress and had not been validated. Well, that was two weeks ago; it could have been validated by now, and we still have not seen a copy of it.

What did that research say? It revealed that the private companies placed into work just 6 per cent. of incapacity benefit claimants on their books, rather than the 26 per cent. that they claimed would be possible when they bid for the contracts. That compares with 14 per cent., achieved by state jobcentres during the same period. The report described the private contractors’ performance as “not satisfactory”. That information should have been put before the House and published before the debate took place, because it evidences the fact that the rush to privatisation is being pursued for dogmatic reasons and is a waste of taxpayers’ resources.

What have we seen in the approach to the privatisation of further jobcentre work? So far, the Government have gone out on their consultations and in the development of tenders, and a number of companies have expressed their interest. There were regional discussions and consultations. The Government gave a commitment that money would be paid up front—the argument was that 20 per cent. of it would be front-loaded—and that the companies would receive the rest of the payments on the basis of placing people into work. We are now told that those involved have had to re-consult, that the companies want more money up front and that the targets are not to place people into work, but to prepare them for the possibility of work. I do not understand why we are wasting resources and undertaking such a lengthy process when we are praising jobcentre staff to the hilt for their professionalism and success.

I considered some of the problems that the private sector has brought forward. If we look at a number of areas in which back-to-work support has already been contracted out, we see that some contractors have failed completely. Two external providers of the pathways to work scheme, Instant Muscle and Carter and Carter, went bust almost as soon as they were awarded the contract, leaving claimants high and dry. Other contractors, notably A4e and Maatwerk, have been heavily criticised for poor performance. Again, I just do not understand why the Government are pursing such a dogmatic path when there is no evidence to justify their doing so; all the evidence demonstrates the perils of dependence on the private sector for the delivery of the services that we are talking about.

Could the answer be relatively simple—that the Government want to drive down the civil service headcount, and think that the way to do that is to transfer jobs done by civil servants to the private sector, regardless of the consequences?

There is an argument that the Government, taking a very short-sighted approach, may well want to do exactly that—drive down the headcount. They may try to look at the issue as a cuts exercise, or a reduction-of-expenditure exercise, and dress it up as a way of increasing performance and getting people back into work, or preparing them for work. However, all the evidence points in the opposite direction. All the evidence points towards abortive costs. If contracts are awarded to companies that go belly-up and into administration, we are back to square one, and there will be abortive costs as a result of going through the whole tendering process again.

The argument has been put forward that the measures are not about private companies, but about awarding contracts to the voluntary sector, or third sector, as we now call it. Well, in the recent period, 33 out of 34 DWP contracts have gone to the private sector, not the voluntary sector. The private sector companies have largely been the large corporates. We have consulted, and looked at the evidence from, the voluntary sector. I give the example of the Leonard Cheshire charity. It stated that the model that the Government were putting forward would result in the

“complete loss of the competitive market, to the detriment of small specialist existing providers, as well as the removal of customer choice and control”,

because contracting out is being dominated by the large companies.

Does my hon. Friend have any evidence on the comparative working conditions of those employed directly by the DWP to deliver services, and those employed by companies that successfully bid for such contracts?

We are aware of some comparisons of wage rates, which are considerably lower in the private sector. We are also aware of the high turnover of staff in the private sector, which is possibly a result of the management style, but also a result of conditions of work and wage rates. That is an issue that we need to consider, because jobcentres and the DWP have built up expertise over decades. We have commended staff for the expertise that they have shown in their performance in recent years; Ministers have said that they have provided an excellent service.

My amendments on the subject seek to halt the privatisation, as there is no evidence or justification for it. There is another reason, too: we have to accept that the continued onslaught on DWP staff is undermining their morale. We have already laid off 30,000 workers in the DWP. It has been mentioned that 200 jobcentres were closed down, but in total, more than 500 offices have been closed down. At the same time, we have engaged in a management style that has provoked a whole series of disputes in recent years, yet DWP staff still provide the excellent service described by Ministers. However, staff can only take so much. Having provided an excellent service, they are threatened with more privatisation and more job losses.

Let me end on a quote. Ministers say that they have toured jobcentres and found that staff were supportive of everything that the Government were doing, and all the rest of it. When those staff meet separately, and within their trade union branches, they express their concern and their anger. The PCS DWP group president, Jane Aitchison, said:

“Our members are proud of the work they are doing in jobcentres. The staff have responded in exceptional fashion to sharp increases in workloads. After years of being under-valued, constant cuts and under investment, the response to the recession has demonstrated our members’ ability to meet extraordinary challenges in a way no private company could have done. The government should not be galloping towards further privatisation. The kind of outsourcing of jobcentres proposed in the welfare reform bill would be a major blow to my members’ morale.”

If the amendments were agreed to, they would end that privatisation. We should be building DWP staff’s morale and congratulating them on the work that they have done, not targeting and undermining their role in this way.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). My party and I have serious concerns about some of the clauses in this part of the Bill. A series of amendments seek to deal with conditionality.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this is a Bill for another age. This week, we will see unemployment top the 2 million mark. The Bill does not address the problems that many of our constituents now face. There are many things that it could and should have done to help employers and to help people who are losing their job to stay in work. I spoke to an employer yesterday who told me that in the next six weeks he is likely to have to shut his company because of insufficient orders. We ought to do what they are doing in Germany and France, which provide support for such companies, so that they can lay off their staff but continue to pay them. There is no provision for that in the Bill, so that company will close in six weeks, as many others have done.

We are not opposed to welfare reform, but there are some basic principles that the Bill does not address. The Royal College of Psychiatrists set out five principles for effective reform which the amendments should meet. Although those principles are meant particularly for people with mental health problems, they apply across the piece. The first is that there should be clear evidence that welfare programmes work for people. We are talking about introducing a raft of programmes, introducing conditionality, and forcing people to work for their benefits, as the hon. Gentleman said, at rates of less than £1.60 an hour, but where is the evidence that such conditionality works?

The Government are good at quoting examples from abroad. However, the examples from America, the Netherlands and Scandinavia are very different. The programmes in America clearly do not work and have not been a success. As I pointed out to the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform in an earlier debate, the scheme in Wisconsin pays people who work a proper wage and does not put them on Workfare, as the Bill proposes.

The second principle is that the welfare system must address people’s needs and particular circumstances. Where in the Bill is there clear provision for proper child care facilities to be in place before a lone parent is put on such a scheme? Amendment 36 tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) seeks to address that need. There is no guarantee of that in the Bill. Similar safeguards are not in place in respect of other provisions.

Thirdly, when services are contracted out, there should be no discrimination against those who are difficult to place. From the evidence that has been provided, we know that so-called parking and creaming—that is, parking those people who might be difficult to get into work, and creaming off those whom it is easy to place in employment—already takes place. Where are the safeguards in the Bill to prevent that? The fourth principle is that employers should fulfil their responsibilities to employ and support disabled people. What does the Bill do to strengthen that commitment? An opportunity has been missed. Fifthly, everyone must have access to an appropriately well informed and trained vocational work force.

I want to talk about amendments 49 to 65, which stand in my name, and to say a few words about the other amendments in the context of the five clear principles for undertaking any welfare reform. I also want to ask why the Government are not adhering to those principles.

We support new clause 1. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) said, in 1988 the Conservative Government made a clear distinction between those under 25 and those over 25 in respect of the amount that they should receive. Young people on JSA are currently on £13.35 a week less than other JSA claimants. Where is the evidence that that is necessary? Young people’s needs are the same as those of other people. I am not talking about child care, as that is dealt with elsewhere, but the differential puts young people at a real disadvantage. We support the new clause, which would ensure that there is no discrimination against young people. The Equality Bill is going through the House. How can the Government say in all seriousness that that Bill’s provisions will be adhered to, given that some of the unemployed are discriminated against for one reason and one reason only—because they are of a certain age? That is a clear breach of the provisions.

New clause 8 seeks to ensure that income-related benefits can be adjusted to take into account work-related activity performed by the claimant. There is already a provision whereby employment and support allowance claimants can receive an additional £24-odd a week for undertaking work-related activity. Why has that provision not been extended to all people undertaking work-related activity? Why should a lone parent who has agreed to undertake such activity not receive that bonus, which is paid to ESA claimants? Where is the fairness and equity in that? Where is the evidence that not paying lone parents that supplement will encourage them back into work? As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said, there is no evidence for that. The evidence is that when lone parents are properly supported they return to work, and that Government schemes are successful. We support new clause 8, which seeks to enshrine what is patently missing from much of the Bill—equality in how claimants of all types are treated.

Amendments 40 to 43 would make the “work for your benefit” scheme a pilot. The Government are right to say that in a recession they do not want to stand back on reform, that it is important that no one should be forgotten and that things should move forward. However, I put it to Ministers that unemployment is rising and that there is already evidence—there were reports in the press last week—that Jobcentre Plus staff cannot cope with the number of people whom they have to see; people are getting two-minute interviews instead of 20-minute ones. Why, then, do we need to press ahead completely and make these things mandatory for everyone? It makes sense—again, sticking to the principle that there has to be clear evidence that welfare reforms work—for the scheme to be a pilot. Then it could be properly evaluated and reported on to the House, and we could see where to go from there. We support amendments 40 to 43.

Amendments 11 and 12 would render the “work for your benefit” scheme an offer, rather than an imposition. Again, where is the evidence that imposing something is successful? The available evidence, whether international or based in this country, shows that providing good-quality support to people is what works, not seeking to impose something.

Amendment 36 would ensure predictable access to good-quality, affordable and flexible child care. An important principle is involved, which is that the parent should be able to make that decision. It is not for an adviser, who may not live in the area and may not know what is available, to decide what that claimant should do. I know that the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West has tabled amendment 36 because in Scotland there is no legal entitlement to child care. In Committee, the Minister promised to reflect on it, and get back to us on Report. I hope that he is willing to consider it, because it is fair and reasonable. It is a matter not of saying no, but of saying that there has to be access to proper entitlement.

Amendments 13, 14 and 15 deal with the compulsory elements. Amendment 13 would mean that work-related activity was not compulsory. That is the right way forward in the current circumstances—such activity should be an option, not imposed. Amendment 14 removes the provision that requires individuals to participate in “work for your benefit” schemes, and we support that. Amendment 15 ensures an hourly rate at the level of the minimum wage in any “work for your benefit” scheme, or a wage equal to that of staff directly employed and undertaking the same role. In Committee, I cited the example from Wisconsin where, whatever benefits might be paid in America, it is clear that someone undertaking a work-related activity is paid a fair wage for it. Again, I ask the Minister why that should not take place? Why should someone be required to undertake work, even though it may benefit them, without being paid a fair rate? Given this Government’s record on the minimum wage and protecting vulnerable workers, I find it surprising that they are not putting such protection in place.

Amendment 45, following an established sequence, would require a pilot to continue until 2013, when it would be properly evaluated. Throughout the Bill, there are provisions to set up pilots—whether we are talking about direct payment, or the Child Support Agency and the removal of driving licences—about which there will be reports to this House. Given that wholesale changes are being made that affect a large number of vulnerable people, why can we not have a pilot that is reported on in 2013? That seems logical and fair, and we support it. Amendments 13 to 16 deal with increasing payment and lessening compulsion for work-related activity. That is the way forward.

Amendment 17 deals with work-related activity, and amendment 35 deals with the problem of a lone parent returning to work. We all want to see as many people who are able returning to work. Whatever our stance, that has to be the case. However, it really ought to be for a parent, particularly a lone parent, to decide when they are able to go back to work. We have moved rapidly, in the Green Paper, the White Paper and then the Bill, from a lone parent having to return to work when their child is 16 to their having to do so when their child is three, if the Bill is not amended. Again, I ask Ministers what the evidence is that compulsion, and forcing a lone parent to go back to work when their child is that age, is successful.

There are examples elsewhere, but in places where there are much better systems in place to support such parents.

There is some evidence, as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions says, but we are moving far too fast. The system needs to be supportive.

Again, I wish to quote Fiona Weir, the chief executive of Gingerbread. She said during the evidence session of the Public Bill Committee:

“From our experience of working with single parents, we feel quite strongly that the vast majority want to work; in fact, nine out of 10 say that they want to work when it is right for their family. Usually, when you unpick that a bit, there are very good reasons behind their choices on work, and 40 per cent. of lone parents with children under seven are already in work. Those who are not working often have very good reasons: sometimes it is skills and confidence, sometimes a lack of access to the right child care, and sometimes a different set of barriers relating to the particular needs of the children. Fundamentally, what is required is a system that really provides support on skills training and building confidence, and good provision of child care, but that essentially leaves the decision about when it is right for the family for the single parent to return to work up to that single parent.”[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 10 February 2009; c. 42, Q53.]

If we had all the other things in place—if the personalised agenda that the Government are so keen to talk about were up, running and working and if we had excellent child care in every locality that could deal with the needs of not just very young children but older ones, for whom there is clear evidence that adequate child care is not available—then yes, the Government could go ahead and introduce compulsion. However, those things are not available. We are putting the cart before the horse. We are not concentrating on improving services to make it easier for lone parents to go back to work, even though we have it in our head that that must be done. We are willing the ends but not the means, which is not an acceptable way to behave.

How does that square with what the hon. Gentleman said earlier: a lone parent is in the best position to decide when to go into employment, taking into account the interests of her, or sometimes his, children?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It clearly does not. There could be a whole set of individual circumstances in a particular family. There might be a child who is disabled or has other problems, or a parent who needs additional training in skills and confidence-building. Someone who has been raising a family will have been out of the job market for a while, so what guarantee is there that she or he will automatically be able to go back? Again, it is conditionality that causes us concern. The problem is not whether people want to go back to work, because as we have said and as Gingerbread’s evidence showed, nine out of 10 lone parents want to do that. It is whether the means are in place to enable them to do so.

I turn to amendments 49 to 56, which are in my name. They would remove the power of the Department and private contractors to issue mandatory directions to income support claimants and their partners. Again, Child Poverty Action Group believes that a parent with the primary child care responsibility, whether a lone parent or a partner of a claimant, should have a choice about entering work, and that such choice requires far greater support than is currently available.

Child care provision is patchy and we know that it is inadequate for older and disabled children. Child Poverty Action Group opposes an increase in conditionality and the consequent sanctions, which will create hardship for parents and their children and fail to tackle barriers to employment.

What will be the net effect of imposing conditionality on a lone parent? As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said, stopping a lone parent’s benefit will mean an additional cost for local authorities. Will that family be split up because the parent is no longer able adequately to provide for her or his children? That is not the way forward.

It is important to have high-quality, tailored employment and support to partners as an entitlement that they may take up voluntarily. Many claimants and their partners have a strong interest in work, but where, in the current economic climate and in many of the areas that we represent, are the jobs that will make the conditionality operate? Clearly, it will not work, and there will be genuine problems. It will be a distraction from what, in our view, should be the main task of jobseeker’s allowance: to help as many people as possible back into work. The increasing numbers of unemployed will present a challenge to the Department.

Amendments 57 and 58 deal with the factors that should be taken into account when considering what is reasonable in relation to loss of benefit for not participating in a work-related activity. The Bill states that regulations may provide for reconsideration of an action plan, but imposes no statutory duty for such reconsideration. Amendment 57 would insert a legal right for a claimant’s action plan to be reconsidered, provided that the request is reasonable. In the discussion on clause 2 in Committee, Ministers and the Conservative Opposition presented two main arguments against that.

First, the Government and the Conservatives argued that our amendments would make reconsideration mandatory, but amendment 57 clearly provides that such a request must be reasonable. Hon. Members might reasonably ask what is meant by “reasonable”. Numerous clauses refer to reason and good cause, yet the Bill contains no definition of them. If it is okay to provide that there must be a good, reasonable cause for making direct payments to a disabled person, and that a local authority can refuse to do that if the request is not reasonable, why cannot the amendment make the same provision of reasonableness? Both the clause and the amendment are either reasonable or not, and it is up to the Bill to provide a definition of reasonable.

Secondly, Ministers claim that amendment 57 would shift the balance of power in favour of the claimant. It would not. The amendment would not give claimants carte blanche to refuse to accept the responsibilities that are set out in the action plan. Rather, it would give the claimant who is concerned about what may be in the action plan an opportunity to reconsider that action plan, which would be drawn up in the context of Jobcentre Plus staff being under severe pressure, with a lack of time. Will we get the personalised agenda that the Government talk about or will claimants be presented with a standardised action plan and told, “Take it or leave it”? That would not be acceptable. It is also said that there is no definition of what is reasonable, which is true, but that will be set out in regulation and amended by case law. As I have said previously, that is clearly what applies elsewhere in the Bill.

Amendment 56 would ensure that children are never harmed by any financial sanctions applied to their parents’ benefit. We already know that, compared with many other countries, the levels of benefit paid to claimants here are below the poverty line. We do not want the imposition of sanctions to cause or increase child poverty. The Government have a good record on eliminating child poverty and in recent years they have taken additional steps to eliminate it. Why go down the route proposed? The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington cited the example of the Ministry of Justice abandoning the idea of conditionality and imposing sanctions, which clearly do not work. If we are going to do something, where is the evidence base? Clearly it is not there.

Let me deal with amendments 29 and 26, which deal with privatisation. We are not opposed to privatisation per se and we will not support the amendments dealing with it. Equally, however, we will not support wholesale privatisation. Where is the evidence that privatisation works? We all know that there are third sector organisations that can deliver a much better service, particularly in highly specialised circumstances, for those with learning disabilities or a mental health problem, for example, than Jobcentre Plus staff or private contractors can. We want any move towards privatisation to be evidence-based, with a clear rationale and with competition.

We see no reason why Jobcentre Plus could not also compete for those contracts at the same time as the private contractor. However, I return to what I said earlier. If, when the Minister finally reveals his evidence about the operation of the pilots, that evidence shows that Jobcentre Plus outperforms the private contractor, what will the evidence base be? The evidence base would clearly be that Jobcentre Plus staff have outperformed the private sector and should therefore get the contract. We cannot and should not go down either route for purely dogmatic reasons. We should have the flexibility to pick what works best for the constituents whom we seek to serve.

This is a large and complex group of amendments. We are not seeking to press any of our amendments to the vote, but we will certainly support the first three proposals made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and the Conservative amendment dealing with child care, because we believe that they would considerably improve the Bill. They also underline the clear danger with the Bill, which is its reliance on dogma and conditionality. The Bill does not deal with the one issue in the real world that we all want to do something about, which is rising unemployment. The Bill is an example of yesterday’s problem being dealt with by, I am afraid, some of yesterday’s Ministers.

I want to speak primarily to new clause 8, which stands in my name and which delves back into the arguments that we have been rehearsing for the past couple of hours on the balance between incentives and sanctions, particularly with respect to lone parents. Before I do so, however, I want to spend a few moments talking about two arguments that have emerged in the debate with which I fundamentally disagree and which need a response.

The first relates to the comment with which the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) closed his speech—namely, that the Bill represents yesterday’s agenda and that this is the wrong time for it. I fundamentally disagree with that. It is absolutely correct that we should have a new, or revised, agenda as a response to the recession. There is a desperate need to work with businesses to halt the flow of job losses, and to ensure that newly unemployed people are given a different kind of assistance to get back into work from that offered by Jobcentre Plus and other organisations.

It is also essential, however, that we should not repeat the catastrophic mistakes that we made in the past, particularly in the 1980s. The recession at that time led to long-term unemployment, and the people involved were utterly abandoned. I say that with some knowledge because, in the early 1980s, I was working for an organisation that ran Manpower Services Commission employment programmes. They were an example of brutal Workfare. They were deeply under-administered, and offered very little in the way of additional payment for those working on them and virtually no training. The fact that huge numbers of people could not even get on to those schemes shows how desperate the situation was.

It is essential that, at every stage, we prevent those people who join the jobless queue from drifting into hopelessness for years and years, because we know that that is closely correlated with depression and with exactly the loss of skills and confidence required for job re-entry that the hon. Gentleman referred to. At this juncture, it is therefore critical that we put in place measures—about some of which I must enter caveats—to ensure that people who have been out of the labour market for some time have the means to reconnect and stay in touch with that market.

Does the hon. Lady not accept that many of the amendments do not ignore such people, in that they propose to increase jobseeker’s allowance, to give lone parents a choice or to run certain pilots? They would ensure that what works works, rather than going headlong down a route that might lead to our repeating what happened in the 1980s.

I am not seeking to rubbish the amendments, many of which I agree with, either wholly or in part. However, the fundamental principle of adopting a strategy and measures to reconnect people with the labour market and to prevent them from remaining distant from it over a long period is absolutely right.

That leads me to my second point, which relates to the age that the youngest child of a lone parent should reach before we expect the parent to engage in some form of work-related activity. That is a total red herring. The parents of three-year-olds, particularly in this day and age when 95 per cent. of children enjoy the nursery provision available for three and four-year-olds—some of them part time, certainly, but at least the provision is there—could be in a better position to take advantage of some form of work-related activity than cohorts of other lone parents whom I know, although I have some caveats about the quality of the contact involved.

For example, I have expressed my concern many times in the Chamber about the availability of child care—perhaps it is wrongly called that—for older children. Strangely enough, young children under five have more opportunities to obtain, and gain greater access to, the quality child care that gives their parents the security that they desperately need when trying to ensure that their child is receiving quality provision. They are better provided for than many parents with older children.

I speak with feeling on this subject as a parent with a teenager, and I know that other hon. Members also know perfectly well that if they are out at work or not available during the day, their older child will not necessarily be safe or be occupied in a way that they would like. I ask the Government to continue urgently to address the issue of access to extended services or other out-of-school provision, because it is really critical for that significant minority of lone parents with older children for whom regulations have recently changed to be monitored in respect of the services they rely on. We must ensure that they are able to be confident about taking up job opportunities in the knowledge that their children are safe. Even more critically, they must know that their child will be properly and securely looked after in their absence.

To come to what is probably the heart of the matter, the issue is less a concern about age cohorts and defining whole groups of people than it is about the quality of delivery and the tailoring of the personal intervention to the individual. I know plenty of lone parents of three and four and five-year-olds who are more than ready—and, indeed, willing and welcoming of the idea—for work or training or preparing themselves for moving some way down the path towards employment. I also know lots of parents of older children, as well as some who are not parents at all, who have very specific and important needs that must be addressed before they can be ready for any kind of activity.

I am reminded of a woman who came to see me a couple of weeks ago who was in the process of adopting her dead sister’s child. Her circumstances completely occupy her mind and her mental energies and she is likely to be unwilling to take up work opportunities for the time being. She is the parent of an older child, whereas as I have already said, some parents of a three-year-old child might be more than ready for work. As we know, large numbers of parents—lone parents and in couples—are already going back into employment at the end of their statutory maternity leave.

The critical task for all of us—the Government have gone a long way towards addressing it, but have not convinced me absolutely on every front—is making sure that the service is able to take a decision that is properly tailored to the individual person’s needs.

I speak as one of those parents who went back to work when my children were only a few weeks’ old, but does my hon. Friend agree that society should have respect for a parent’s decision? If a child needs the parent to be at home, we should actually value the fact that parents want to take care of their children, while at the same time we should allow them to avail themselves of opportunities to get back into the world of work if they want to.

That is absolutely right. The issue, as always, is finding a way through a number of conflicting objectives. Parenting is without doubt one of the most important things that any of us ever do. Virtually every parent will put their child at the heart of virtually everything they do in their life; it is sad if they do not, as the child will be damaged. Choice is absolutely important, and parents will make choices.

Plenty of children have a non-statemented special need—attention deficit disorder or dyslexia, for example—and their parents are very conscious of the fact that although their child does not have a statement, they will have to spend more time and invest more of their emotional energy in supporting that child. On the other hand, it is also true that children tend to thrive when their parents are properly occupied through work. There is plenty of evidence that being based outside the home is also good for children and that quality child care—the emphasis being on quality—is good for children and improves their attainments. That is particularly the case when the children’s families come from disadvantaged backgrounds. My hon. Friend is right, but it is a complex issue.

I agree that a child’s well-being depends on the well-being of its parent. A parent who is happy and fulfilled, and not subject to undue stress, will be a better parent. When we are devising mechanisms such as this, it is important that we do not put stress on parents who may already have a difficult job because of their personal circumstances or the circumstances of their children.

I do not think that there is any difference of opinion between us. We should not get hung up on whether the threshold is 16, 11, seven or three, but we should get totally hung up on whether the service is sufficiently flexible and sufficiently sensitive to the variation of needs within families, in the context of employment.

In tabling new clause 8, however, I was principally concerned not with employment but with work-related activity. I think that that can be even more easily accommodated within the capacity of most parents—again, with the vital qualification that it must constitute an opportunity, and that Jobcentre Plus staff should not be frowned upon or penalised if they allow certain parents of 15-year-olds, or in some cases three-year-olds, to opt out because it does not fit their circumstances.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so generously. Once or twice in her speech she has used words such as “tailored”, “personalised”, “sensitive” and “flexible”. Is she convinced that Jobcentre Plus, as a large bureaucracy, is capable of offering as sensitive and personalised a service as she and I—and, I am sure, everyone else—would wish?

I think that Jobcentre Plus is capable of doing so and that it often does so, although it sometimes fails. The service is certainly dramatically better than it was when I first came to the House. I spent a great deal of time with Jobcentre Plus staff at that time, because the Government were rolling out the new deal initiative very quickly after 1997. I remember what jobcentres were like, physically and in terms of the capacity of staff to respond. But have we got it entirely right now? No, and I shall explain why, very briefly, in the context of new clause 8.

As has been said by one of two other Members, the balance between incentives and sanctions, or conditionality, is critical. Claimants of the work-related activity component of the employment and support allowance can receive an additional premium of £24 above jobseeker’s allowance in return for participating in work-focused preparation, but that does not apply to lone parents. Although the principle that incentives work is enshrined in the Government’s programme, that incentive is denied to them.

We know very well that incentives work for lone parents, and we know that their employment levels have risen sharply in recent years. We know that most people want to work, and we know that one of the clear judgments they make when deciding whether to enter employment is whether they will be better off in work. That is at the heart of the matter. Although incentives work, however, they are often not tried out properly. The whole tax credit regime has been crucial in making work pay, but, in various degrees, various parts of the country and various circumstances, the “better off” calculations, or the incentives that underpin them, are not effective enough.

It is entirely sensible to ensure that the people we wish to encourage to participate in work-related activity can enjoy a premium for so doing. As was spelt out so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), all the evidence suggests that if people can be incentivised into participation, outcomes are better. People feel more in control, which makes them more likely to be able to manage other aspects of their lives. They feel more positive, and can therefore take advantage of what work-related activity should do: enable them to assess and develop their skills, and to overcome the confidence-related barriers that have prevented them from moving closer to employment. It does not really matter whether that happens now, in the midst of an economic downturn, or a little further down the road.

Equally, and set against this, without a premium we rely on work-related activity being a requirement underpinned by a sanction only, and sanctions do not work. We know that the impact of sanctions is only marginal in terms of people deciding not to participate, and, worse still, they can have an utterly catastrophic impact on individuals. The Department’s own research shows that the application of sanctions is closely correlated to poor health among both parents and children. We do not want to inflict that on people.

We also know one other thing—I certainly know this, from my experiences of working with my constituents. One of the big factors in determining whether people participate in training, work-related activity or employment is risk aversion. People are damaged by risk, and parents are particularly risk-averse—I think it is hard-wired into us. We do not want people to be put into a situation where their income plummets and rises again, so that there are all kinds of consequences for them in terms of benefits. Also, any sanctions that apply to their benefits will often have knock-on impacts in terms of their housing. Other people then get to know about that, and word gets around, so people do not want to participate in any of these schemes that will take them further down the road towards their being subject to the risk of consequences that will upset them and their children.

I wholeheartedly share my hon. Friend’s views on incentivisation—we have discussed that—and on sanctions not working. They not only do not work, but they are counter-productive at times. Most of us have seen—particularly through the asylum regime—that not only are they driving people into absolute poverty in some instances, but they also drive them into the employment black market where they can be more exploited, especially through illegal employment. This, therefore, becomes deeply counter-productive for certain groups within our society.

I do not disagree with that. No system of benefits can survive without sanctions. They are an essential part of any such system: there will always be some people who deliberately undermine the system and calculatedly refuse to participate, so they are necessary. However, sanctions should be a measure of failure of the system, not a measure of its success. I am not saying that they are regarded by the Government as a measure of success, but I think that, subliminally, they almost are; it is as if the attitude is, “Well, we’ve managed to catch this many people doing something wrong and sanction them, and that shows the system’s working.” That is not the case. We in this House should always keep an eye on what is happening to levels of sanctions, and be very concerned when they rise.

The core point of new clause 8 is that sanctions must be balanced with incentives. We do that in terms of the employment and support allowance, but we do not do it in respect of lone parents. I think that the system is broadly right—I do not have any fundamental principled concerns about it. However, if we are going to make it work, we need to make sure that sanctions are borne down on and are matched in all cases with the incentives that we know work.

I must express my disappointment that there are so many wrecking amendments from Labour and Liberal Democrat Members. The idea that we can bring about the major change required in this Bill through merely voluntary means, by offering and providing opportunities, strikes me as ludicrous. I am also still unclear about the scale of the change in the current welfare system that Labour Members believe is required.

I could not believe my ears when I heard that there was no evidence available to support the Government and ourselves on this issue. As a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, I sat through an extremely valuable inquiry on the commissioning strategy, which was full of evidence. I fully admit that evidence can always be evaluated differently, but it is simply not the case that there is no evidence to support the Government. I hope that those of us who had the privilege of speaking to and questioning Professor Gregg will have been impressed by the academic research and evidence that went into what he had to say.

May I cite an example of two single mothers whom I met when I went to my local Jobcentre Plus and, with their permission, sat through their interviews? One of them had rushed to the jobcentre within an hour of getting a job to make sure that she was signed off from every possible involvement with Jobcentre Plus, not because the experience of working with the people there had been bad, but because she wanted a job. She required neither conditionality nor incentives; she just wanted to be in employment.

That single mother was shortly followed by a young mother from a similar background and of a similar age. Her attitude was that producing a child was her contribution to society—she thought it was all that was required—and no incentive would have convinced her otherwise. She is surely a good example of the need for personalised support and conditionality. How is a scheme of offerings and opportunities likely to work in practice in the example I have just given?

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that if that young woman had the opportunity of a higher income, she, wanting the best for her child, would be incentivised into work?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but the answer to it must be no. I had the benefit of sitting through that woman’s interview, and she had fundamentally made up her mind that she had done her bit for society and other issues were not going to get in the way. There has been the tragedy of a wasted decade in welfare reform and I do not wish things to be further hampered by any of these amendments being passed.

The only amendment that deserves support is amendment 35, which deals with the absence of child care. Government changes over the past couple of years have created considerable fears in my constituency that the mixed child care economy of public and private provision, of which we are justly proud, is being undermined and that private providers might go to the wall. In addition, when my county introduced school provision for four-year-olds, which was welcomed as an issue of choice, it was quite clear that parents overwhelmingly believed that four was too young. People were very happy with the idea of five, because it is part of letting go of one’s children and there were good practical reasons for it.

My final point deals with contracting out and the so-called privatisation. Listening to some Labour Members, one would think that the whole of Jobcentre Plus will disappear tomorrow into private sector hands. The evidence that we were given on the commissioning strategy pointed to the fact that the inclusion of the private sector can lead to considerable innovation in the service provided, particularly that provided to the long-term unemployed. On that basis, I hope that we will be sensible about these amendments and allow the reforms to go through. As my hon. Friends have mentioned, they do not go far enough, but they are a step in the right direction at the right time.

Before I discuss my amendment 36, I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), who was aided and abetted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell); after a standing start, she certainly got into her swing with the help she was given. I may not necessarily agree with everything she said, but I have some sympathies with her proposals.

I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will be glad to hear that I wish to discuss just my amendment 36 and am not going to go through every amendment—that would mean that we would be here all night. If we are to place additional requirements on parents as part of these reforms, we need to make sure there is adequate support before the conditions kick in. I recognise the need to get people into work, particularly in the current times—it is important that people have that opportunity. However, with the prospective Bill on child poverty and the difficulty of reaching our targets on this, we need to make sure children are at the forefront of our minds when we consider the effect of these reforms. We cannot put extra strain on parents if they cannot afford it—that would mean that they would be left worse off by the welfare system, and that was never the intention.

Given the increasing obligations to be placed on parents who are unemployed, there is particular concern over the lack of high quality, flexible and affordable child care, particularly in Scotland. My amendment seeks to make sure that that is considered before strict conditions are placed on parents. It is a probing amendment—for the third time—to ensure that the Government have been listening and that children are at the heart of these reforms.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform recognised the issues involved, both on Second Reading and in Committee, and undertook to revisit them on Report. We are now on Report and I look forward to his reply. I know that he has been looking at the matter, which is why I have re-tabled this provision.

I wish to thank the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform, which has helped me with this amendment. The group includes more than 40 organisations that work with people experiencing exclusion and poverty in Scotland, and when it was discussed in Committee the amendment attracted media coverage north of the border due to the group’s excellent work. The provision seeks to make sure that unless a claimant has good access to affordable child care they will not be faced with a Catch-22 decision between benefits and making sure that their children are looked after.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) made a good point that my amendment missed out: the cover provided for older children. I ask the Minister to have a word with his colleagues who deal with schools about after-school care and pre-school care, to ensure that children are looked after while parents are working and that the care that they get is sufficient for their needs and their education. That would go a long way to help remove the fears that my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North has about whether older children are being looked after.

I wish to focus on the lack of child care in Scotland, because the Minister recognised that on Second Reading. According to figures from One Parent Families Scotland, more than 50,000 children could be affected by the planned changes. There are limited means of systematically monitoring Scottish-wide provision, so it is difficult to get a precise picture and no one can produce any knock-down statistics. However, there are a number of important factors that I would like to bring to the House’s attention. First, there is a precedent for ensuring that child care arrangements in Scotland are taken into account in legislation. Implementation of provisions in the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 was delayed in Scotland for four years because removing benefit entitlement was based on alternative care arrangements in England and Wales that were not in place in Scotland—these differences remain today. There is no legal entitlement to child care in Scotland, unlike in England and Wales. There is no subsidy for child care for two-year-olds in Scotland, again unlike in England and Wales. There is no UK-wide equivalent of the Childcare Act 2006, which puts a duty on local authorities in England and Wales to secure as far as is practical sufficient child care to meet the needs of working parents. I hope that that message has been heard north of the border and that Scotland will put its house in order to meet the same requirements as exist in England and Wales.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that Scotland’s house is not in order. Does he accept that in some ways that is a result of history? When we were younger, child care and nurseries were hardly heard of. The speed of change in Scotland may be different, but we have already heard that child care provision is inadequate in many parts of the UK, not just in Scotland.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which is one more than he made when we had this discussion in Committee. What he says does not mean that we do not have to supply child care today. I actually went to nursery school before I went to primary school—I was going to say that it made me the man I am today, but perhaps it made me half the man I am today. The important point is the obligation. It is not a question of whether Scotland’s child care is better than the child care in England and Wales: the most important element is the obligation on the local council to ensure that when the Bill comes into force and parents are forced into work, there is sufficient child care to meet their needs. I am not claiming that England is better than Scotland or vice versa. I just want to ensure that local councils have an obligation to provide the service, so that the parents have some recourse if the child care is not made available. Lack of child care would be more than an excuse for not going into work, and it is difficult to work for people who are worrying about their child.

The DWP document “Impact Assessment of the Welfare Reform Bill”, published in January, emphasised the importance of child care and recognised the risks of imposing obligations on parents. However, it stated that the risks were mitigated by the improvements in England and Wales as a result of the Childcare Act, which places a duty on local authorities in those countries to secure sufficient child care for working parents. Given that there is no such duty in Scotland, the risks of imposing conditions on parents clearly remain.

We also know that things have been moving in the wrong direction in recent years. Between 2006-08, there was a fall in the number of child care centres and child minders in Scotland from 10,388 to 10,322. It is a small fall, but any reduction is going the wrong way, because we should be seeing an increase. Cost, particularly for single parents and those couples with low incomes, is the biggest hurdle to getting a good job with an income to support their family. So it is of real concern that figures from the Daycare Trust show that the cost of out-of-school child care in Scotland increased by 29 per cent in the last 12 months, while the cost of a nursery place rose by 12 per cent.

I ask the Minister whether the Government have spoken to their counterparts in the Scottish Executive to ensure that the child care obligation can be met. I note that no one has criticised my questions, so I assume that everyone agrees that this is an area that needs looking at. I have been disappointed by the official Opposition. I tabled amendment 36 because in Committee everyone seemed to be in favour of the proposal, but the official Opposition have given no indication of whether they support the amendment or even whether they think that it is a good idea. Do they care about child care or not?

If the hon. Gentleman is so passionate about this issue, why will he not press amendment 36 to a vote?

A probing amendment is just that. If their lordships want to press this issue to a vote, that is up to them. I want to try to obtain an extra four years for Scotland to ensure that we match the facilities provided in England and Wales. Why would I push an issue to a vote when I am seeking an extension for Scotland before the Act comes into force?

In conclusion, I wish to emphasise that there are clear differences in child care provision in parts of the UK, such as Scotland. We clearly need to take great care in ensuring that the conditions placed on parents are not counter-productive in helping them into work and that, in no circumstances, do we leave them in a Catch-22 situation over child care. The Bill is based on what is happening in England and Wales, not in Scotland. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

I wish to speak to amendments 42 to 47. Amendments 42 to 45 deal with clause 1, which covers “work for your benefit” schemes, or as it has been called today, Workfare. There has been much quoting—perhaps I should say misquoting—of various research and of what the Select Committee said about this subject. It is important to put the issue in context.

In the US, Workfare was defined as mandated participation in unpaid work activities as a condition of receiving social assistance. In New York, it applied from day one of a claim for assistance. In Wisconsin, the system was corrupt from the start, with certain organisations—which are trying to set up in this country now—milking the system and making millions out of it, while claimants got nothing. Workfare never worked in Wisconsin, although some people got very rich—contractors as well as politicians.

At the height of the system in New York, in 1999, some 40,000 people were on Workfare. Today, there are 3,000, because the authorities have realised that it does not work. The scheme that was being operated in New York was nowhere near what is proposed in the Bill. Hon. Members can object to the scheme in the Bill, but it is not Workfare as operated in New York. Australia had a totally different system. It did not take effect until people had been on benefit for six months and all Workfare was in the non-productive sector. In fact, there was great concern that people were getting no work experience at all, and it largely failed in Australia for that reason.

It is claimed that there is no evidence that Workfare works. In fact, in New York, it worked as a massive incentive for people to cancel their benefit claim or not to claim in the first place. That is what happens under a proper Workfare system that operates from day one of the benefit claim. The “work for your benefit” proposal does not take effect until people have been on benefits for two years. Frankly, if our employment services cannot get someone into work after two years, there is something wrong with the system to start with.

We know, from the work trials for lone parents that have been done with Marks & Spencer and other organisations, that they work. Generally, the person works for four weeks and demonstrates capability—not least being able to arrive on time—and the vast majority of those people get jobs. That is what the direction of travel has to be.

The Government’s scheme is called “work for your benefit”, so I think that it can be translated into a requirement to work to receive benefit. I commend the schemes that my hon. Friend has recommended, which are voluntary schemes.

There are different definitions of voluntary. The schemes are largely voluntary, but I think that there are hidden pressures behind them. However—this is where I have to take exception with my hon. Friend—such schemes work. When something works, why not—

No, my hon. Friend will have to wait. He spoke for 40 minutes; will he let me have a go for five minutes?

When something works, why not extend the opportunity to take part in it to others?

There is an issue about compulsion, but let us deal with the matter in general—let us not deal with lone parents. If somebody has been on benefit for two years and has had every type of assistance going, if they have been through the ordinary new deal and the flexible new deal, if they have had intensive programmes and a skills audit and if they still do not have a job, that suggests that something is missing.

I recommend to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and anyone else in the House the research conducted by Reed in Partnership. It analysed every person who had been through its employment zone and found that 16 per cent. of participants did not have a job, training or anything at the end of it. Why? They did not want to work. They were quite open and blunt about it. They just wanted a life on benefits. They did not want to go to work. Reed arranged interviews and half of them were offered jobs, which they turned down. There must come a point where the state says, “If you are not going to play ball at all, the sanction will come in.”